AUGUSTA — A legislative committee endorsed a bill Thursday that aims to improve tracking of how often Maine schools physically restrain or place students in seclusion.

The bill would require schools to provide more detailed annual reports to the state on the number of instances of restraint or seclusion of students, as well as any injuries incurred by either students or staff.

The proposal also would require the Maine Department of Education to develop plans to monitor trends at individual schools and to increase professional development to help staff avoid and manage incidents with unruly or dangerous students.

The Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee voted 8-0 to endorse the amended bill, L.D. 1376, roughly 10 days after hearing emotional and, at times, disturbing accounts on restraint and/or seclusion in schools.

“You don’t need to be an educator if you are shoving kids in mop closets,” said Rep. Justin Fecteau, R-Augusta.

Fecteau was responding to one incident detailed in a report on restraint and seclusion that was released last week by the nonprofit advocacy organization Disability Rights Maine. The report found that use of physical restraints and seclusion jumped 60 percent – from 12,000 to 20,000 instances – in four years in Maine schools.

Roughly 77 to 79 percent of those incidences involved students with disabilities or who were in special education programs. And the majority of restraint or seclusion cases occurred at “special purpose private schools” that exclusively serve students with disabilities or special needs, according to the report.

In 2012, the Maine Department of Education set standards and procedures for the use of restraints and seclusion, including requirements to notify parents about incidents and to report aggregate data to the state annually. But Disability Rights Maine said the increasing use of those techniques, as well as inconsistent reporting by schools, shows those rules “can only be seen as a failure.”

Bill sponsor Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, said negotiations with the department led to a proposed “performance plan” that would place schools in different tiers, depending on the levels of restraint and seclusion.

“We can figure out who is doing a pretty good job,” Farnsworth said. “But it also gives us the opportunity, for those (schools) that are maybe having some difficulty, to develop appropriate interventions that include professional development opportunities … so that they can get it together.”

Fecteau raised concerns that egregious cases of restraint or seclusion that would make headlines if they occurred in a typical classroom are being tolerated when they involve special education students. Fecteau said he would like to see firmer enforcement mechanisms – including holding principals accountable – if schools tolerate such treatment of students or fail to accurately report incidents to the state.

Committee members also heard feedback from schools that the existing reporting forms are cumbersome or do not allow them to share important information. They urged the department to work with schools to improve the system.

The bill will now go to the full House and Senate for consideration.

 

 

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