AUGUSTA — In an elementary school classroom in central Maine this year, one girl has destroyed several books, ripped charts off the walls and thrown shoes at a classmate.
More than once, the teacher has evacuated the other students from the classroom so adults can deal with the girl alone. She has pinched, kicked and spit at school staff.
“The other students in my room have become more fearful, as they have learned that adults do not interfere with this one student’s behavior, and thus their anxiety has increased,” the teacher wrote in an anonymous letter to the Maine Education Association. “Also, they are losing valuable class time when this one student is disruptive.”
Dozens of teachers and administrators have lodged similar complaints with state education associations and the Department of Education about a new state rule limiting physical restraint of students.
State Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, is hopeful his fellow legislators will act quickly in the upcoming session to make the rule easier for educators to understand and give them more flexibility to deal with misbehavior.
The education groups sent letters to the Department of Education in November, asking them to reopen and amend the rule, but department officials said they would not. The department has since agreed to write language for a resolve Saviello plans to introduce.
Deborah Friedman, director of policy and programs for the Department of Education, said addressing educators’ complaints requires policy discussions that will happen more quickly and openly through the Legislature than the department’s rule-making process.
Saviello may propose allowing teachers to lead disruptive students out of a classroom or use a physical restraint to stop serious property damage.
Saviello said school boards, administrators and teachers are all on board, and Department of Education staff are seeking input from children’s advocates and disability specialists who helped the department revise the rule over the course of months.
“It seems to me we’ve got this headed in the right direction,” Saviello said. “If everything works out right, maybe by February teachers will be able to focus on education again.”
The revised rule, known as Chapter 33, defines physical restraint as an intervention that restricts a student’s freedom of movement, and it includes moving a student against their will. It is allowable only when there is imminent risk of harm or injury to the student or others and only if less intrusive interventions don’t work.
School staff also must document every restraint in an incident report provided to administrators, parents and the state, then develop a plan for future incidents.
Educators and their representatives have said the rule leaves school staff reluctant to touch students at all and burdened with paperwork. School staff have been injured, property destroyed and classes disrupted.
MEA Executive Director Rob Walker said the rule doesn’t need to be overhauled, just reined in so everyone can feel safe and understand what’s allowed.
“I think there were some principals and superintendents who were so worried about litigation that they were erring on the side of caution,” Walker said. “They were interpreting the rules in such a way that it just provided too much latitude for the misbehaving students to trash a room.”
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen visited Farmington-based Regional School Unit 9, which includes Saviello’s hometown of Wilton, in mid-December to talk with teachers about their experiences trying to comply with the rule.
“There’s been a softening on the department’s part, I think,” said Mike Cormier, superintendent of RSU 9. “I think what has helped is we’ve tried to be very clear with examples of actual things that have happened. And it’s pretty broad-based, not just in my school system.”
Cormier, also past president of the Maine School Superintendents Association, said the district has had thousands of dollars in property damage this year, and staff have started to document loss of instructional time for other students when an out-of-control student will not voluntarily leave a classroom.
Deb Davis, a Falmouth mother who worked on the new rule, wants teachers to feel safe and confident in leading their classes.
“If there are small changes to make teachers more comfortable, I’m fine with that,” she said. “I hope teachers will pay attention to all the things they can do before restraint and seclusion.”
Davis said she’s still traumatized by the use of restraints on her son, now 8, when he was in kindergarten. She and the school have worked out a behavior plan that gives him support and breaks during the day, with good results.
Davis said she will keep an eye on any proposed changes to Chapter 33. She said the safety of all individuals should come before the convenience of school staff or other students, and educators should plan and prepare to avert emergencies.
Susan McMillan — 621-5645