AUGUSTA — A bill that would prohibit schools in Maine from using restraints and seclusion rooms for students with behavioral disabilities came under fire Monday at a State House news conference.

Parents of children with behavioral disabilities, special education teachers, administrators, behavioral specialists and others urged lawmakers to retain Maine Department of Education rules that allow schools to temporarily restrain and seclude students when they become a danger to themselves or others.

They said restraint and seclusion are necessary tools for teachers when a student becomes unmanageable and poses risks to themselves or others.

Wendy Perkins of Auburn said her non-verbal, autistic daughter will no longer be able to attend school in Maine if seclusion is no longer an option.

“She’s aggressive, she’s self-injurious, she’s mean but she’s the love of everyone at that school, everybody knows her, everybody loves to work with her but she needs that seclusion,” Perkins said. “Taking that away takes away her ability to calm down. Takes away her ability to self-regulate. That seclusion gives her time to de-escalate and reregulate herself so she can come back out and be herself.”

Dr. Michelle Hathaway, director of the nonprofit Margaret Murphy Center for Children, said seclusion and restraint are necessary and effective tools for dealing with some of the most difficult child behaviors. She said the bill would prevent staff from keeping students safe and put staff at risk.

As students grow older and larger they can become more dangerous and difficult to keep calm, she said, and students in programs at her center are often referred there after multiple incidents in public schools.

“It is not unusual to see referrals for children who have broken the noses of well-intentioned teachers,” Hathaway said. “These students, often the size of grown adults, will often be aggressive to other students and will push, hit, bite, kick, choke other people in their classroom whether they are staff or other students.”

But the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, and some advocates for the disabled said restraints and exclusion do more harm than good Millett’s bill would apply to public schools and those that offer programs exclusively for students with special needs.

“The trauma of being restrained and secluded in schools can have lasting effects on our students, negatively impacting academic progress and increasing the risk of contact with the juvenile justice system,” Millett said in a prepared statement.

The controversial practices have been the subject of numerous legislative battles in recent years, including a change in 2013 that led to sweeping new rules and detailed documentation requirements for Maine schools. Following those changes, complaints from parents and others dropped to zero, and supporters of the rules say seclusion and restraints are only used in the most dangerous situations.

But data from the Maine Department of Education on restraints and seclusions shows a steady increase in use. In 2020, schools restrained students 17,262 times, up from 8,018 times in 2015. Students were secluded 4,417 times in 2020, up from 2,802 for the same five-year period.

Millett and others said that in 90 percent of those cases, students with disabilities are the ones being restrained and secluded. They say Maine has the highest use of the practices in the country.

However, supporters of the rules say Maine has the most detailed reporting criteria in the U.S., while some states don’t track the practice at all.

Millett said she was crafting an amendment to the bill that would delay implementation, to give schools time to train staff on alternative ways of de-escalating dangerous situations with students. But she did not say Monday how long a delay she will propose. How much the bill would cost to implement was also not included.

Millett’s bill,  L.D. 1376, has gained the support of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, Autism Society of Maine, Disability Rights Maine, Maine Developmental Disabilities Council and the Maine Parent Federation.

Atlee Reilly, managing attorney with Disability Rights Maine, said seclusion and restraint are harmful and counterproductive.

“These responses have no therapeutic or educational value, do not lead to improved behavior, and potentially have long lasting negative consequences,” Reilly said. “Although these practices appear to have been normalized in Maine, where rates of seclusion and restraint are among the highest in the nation, restraining and secluding kids is not necessary, or inevitable.”

But some parents, long-time special education teachers and others disagree. They say banning the use of restraints and seclusion would be costly for the state and local school districts, because they would still be required by law to provide an education for disabled students who would likely end up in special schools outside of Maine – possibly separated from the families.

An attempt to amend the bill by Rep. Sheila Lyman, R-Livermore Falls, failed in an 8-5, party-line vote in the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. Lyman, who taught public school for 36 years, said her amendment would have put the current state rules into law, clarifying that restraints or seclusion could only be used in the most dangerous situations.

Lyman said testimony on the original bill included misleading information, including references to the murder of George Floyd, the Black man whose death in Minneapolis last year launched a wave of protests over police brutality against Black people.

“Restraint and seclusion are not punitive acts,” Lyman said. “Rather, these tools offer support for students struggling in school with emotional and/or behavioral control. The option of seclusion ensures the continued integration of these students in the classroom.”

Lyman said restraining or secluding a student to keep them or others safe is “heart-wrenching” for all teachers, but can protect students, their classmates and school staff.

“When restraint or seclusion is used I know it is an act of kindness offered by deeply caring and compassionate adults,” Lyman said.

The bill will come before the full Legislature for additional votes in the weeks ahead.


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