AUGUSTA — The use of physical restraints or seclusion on students has surged in Maine schools, and disabled children account for the vast majority of students subjected to the controversial techniques, an advocacy group reported Monday.

Disability Rights Maine pointed to a 60 percent jump – from 12,000 to 20,000 instances in four years – as evidence that Maine needs to strengthen its policies and reporting on the use of restraint or seclusion in schools.

“Every school day in Maine, children are restrained and secluded, resulting in a denial of access to education for all involved, additional psychological trauma for many, and physical injury for some,” Disability Rights Maine said in its report, which relied on data from state records and information obtained through Freedom of Access Act requests.

Parents of disabled children and advocates also said the data show Maine schools desperately need more resources and training to learn how to prevent the escalation of behavior before it reaches an “emergency” situation.

“When we are talking about restraint and seclusion, we are talking about when an emergency has happened,” said Deb Davis, co-chair of the Maine Developmental Disabilities Council and mother of a son in special education programs. “So it is already so late in the process to stop it.”

Davis was one of several parents to share emotional, personal stories Monday with lawmakers considering a bill, L.D. 1376, that would change state reporting and accountability policies around restraint and seclusion in schools.

Restraint and seclusion of students has garnered headlines in Maine and across the nation in recent months.

The U.S. Department of Education has said the methods are ineffective at reducing the occurrence of disruptive behaviors. Public health and child welfare groups also warn that such techniques can cause serious physical and psychological harm to students – particularly disabled children unable to comprehend what is happening – and can result in longer-term punishments that disrupt a student’s education.

The Maine Department of Education adopted rules in 2012 that set standards and procedures for the use of restraint or seclusion, including requirements to notify parents about incidents and to report aggregate data to the state annually.

But the Disability Rights Maine report released Monday suggests that those rules, known as Chapter 33, have failed to reduce use of the controversial techniques and are likely not capturing all of the incidences around the state. Instead, the report found “clear and troubling trends” in the use of restraint and seclusion in Maine schools, most notably the disproportionate use on students with disabilities.

“At this point, Chapter 33 can only be seen as a failure,” the report says. “Bold action is required to ensure that we have done more than simply normalize violence against children. Each and every use of restraint or seclusion should be treated like a true emergency.”

Disability Rights Maine estimates that Maine schools employ restraint – such as staff members holding down the arms and/or legs of students – or seclusion four to 11 times more often than the national average.

The data compiled by the advocacy organization showed that the number of instances surged from 12,000 in 2014 to more than 20,000 last year. Because five large school districts did not submit data in 2018, Disability Rights Maine calculated an estimate by adding those districts’ average numbers over the previous five years to the available state data.

Pender Makin, commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, said it was unclear why the number of incidents has increased.

Makin, who is a former principal and assistant superintendent, said you would expect to see higher numbers with more comprehensive reporting and tracking of incidents at the school level. But Makin said she is also hearing anecdotally that schools are seeing higher levels of disruptive behavior that must be managed in the classrooms.

However, she said the department regards restraint and seclusion as “a serious situation” and is working hard to reduce such incidences.

“We are going to be looking into it and will be meeting with school leaders and educators and families to get a better sense of what their experiences have been,” Makin said.

The report also found that students with disabilities account for 77 percent of the restraint cases and 79 percent of seclusions during the 2015-16 school year. The report’s recommendations include banning seclusion in Maine and ensuring that restraint is used only in true emergencies involving imminent danger or the threat of physical injury.

The organization also pointed out that “special purpose private schools” that exclusively serve students with disabilities or special needs accounted for more than 50 percent of all restraints and seclusions each year. And some of those schools do not even report restraints or seclusions to the state.

Jennifer Johnson of Topsham was one of the parents who urged lawmakers on the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee to take more aggressive steps to rein in the practices.

Johnson testified that her 12-year-old daughter, who has mental illness, was restrained 19 times for a total of more than five hours during one month at a special treatment school. Those restraints typically involved two adults lying on the arms of her 70-pound daughter and one adult lying on her legs.

Johnson described a downward spiral of events in which the more her daughter was subjected to restraint or seclusion, the more she acted out in ways that the school said required such treatment. By the time the family was able to remove her from the school, she was so traumatized that she would flinch from attempts to hug her.

“She was a different kid when she came back,” said Johnson, who is herself an education technician with special education students. “It was months before she genuinely smiled or laughed again. And this happened in Maine, to my daughter, to my girl. And it’s not OK.”

Lauren Bartholomew, who is pursuing a master’s degree in occupational therapy at the University of New England, said witnessing restraint and seclusion at a specialized school left her “emotionally exhausted” at the end of each day. While alternative methods are effective, Bartholomew said the school relied upon seclusion or restraint even before the student’s behavior escalated to the point where they posed a threat to themselves or others.

“It is disappointing and disheartening knowing that because of the high number of restraints and seclusions, myself and many others shy away from these settings when often these children are the ones who need our services the most,” she said.

The bill introduced by Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, would require schools to make more detailed annual reports on the use of restraint and seclusion for special education students in addition to the current reports under Chapter 33. Tthe bill also aims to strengthen performance reviews of problematic schools by the department.

But the bill is opposed by the Maine Department of Education, the Maine School Superintendents Association, the Maine School Boards Association and the Maine Administrators for Services for Children with Disabilities.

Ann Belanger, director of special services at the Department of Education, said the agency is “very concerned about excessive use of restraints or seclusion” and is working on professional development programs to help school staff learn how to better manage situations with disruptive students.

But Belanger said some of the language in the bill is incompatible with existing rules and other language is duplicative or redundant. She also raised concerns about changing the “dispute resolution” process for parents concerned, and said punishing schools for noncompliance is likely less effective than providing more resources or training.

“Rather than creating more meetings and more layers of oversight, strengthen the rules that we have,” Belanger said.

Jill Adams, with the Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities, said there is a clear need for more resources for schools and specialists trained to help develop plans for individual children with special needs. Adams told lawmakers the additional reports demanded by the bill likely could be accomplished through Chapter 33.

“(The organization) does not believe that the changes that this bill makes will improve services to children, but it will certainly cause more money to be spent on litigation,” Adams said.

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