Wisconsin schools reported almost 6,000 seclusion and 7,000 restraint incidents with a majority of the incidents involving students with disabilities during the 2021-2022 school year, according to a report by the state Department of Public Instruction.
A total of 1,920 students were involved in 5,908 reported seclusion incidents and 2,856 students were involved in 6,916 reported restraint incidents. The report released on Monday says DPI can infer from this that the same students have been subject to repeated seclusion or restraints.
“Reading this report and seeing these numbers can be difficult, but that is nothing in comparison with the emotional difficulty these numbers represent in the lived experiences of students and staff,” DPI Superintendent Jill Underly said in a statement.
Advocates with Disability Rights Wisconsin said the biggest takeaway from the report is that schools are doing a lot of damage with the practices and they need to figure out a way to cut down on their use.
“Every one of these numbers is a young person, and about three-quarters of them are young people with disabilities and the vast majority of them are young people in elementary schools,” said Joanne Juhnke, an advocacy specialist with Disability Rights Wisconsin. “Every one of those is a time when students were physically overpowered and or put into a room that they physically cannot escape from no matter how they try. Just think of the trauma of that.”
Seclusion is defined in state law as the “involuntary confinement of a pupil, apart from other pupils, in a room or area from which the pupil is physically prevented from leaving.” Doors cannot be locked, according to state statute. Physical restraint is defined as a restriction that immobilizes or reduces the ability of a student to freely move their torso, arms, legs or head.
Students with disabilities were disproportionately involved in these incidents, continuing a trend seen in the last two reports by DPI. Despite comprising 14% of the statewide student body, 79% of seclusion incidents and 76% of restraints involved students with disabilities.
Advocates from Disability Rights Wisconsin said part of the reason that students with disabilities make up the majority of students involved is because they often have additional educational, sensory and emotional support needs that are not being met.
“We’re not meeting their needs early on,” said Mary Cerretti, an advocacy specialist. “We have fewer resources in the schools. We need increased mental health training [and] support. We need to intervene and meet the student’s needs prior to administration stepping in and escalating behaviors oftentimes.”
Juhnke agreed, adding that under-resourcing will continue to present a major challenge to implementing better practices for meeting disabled students’ needs. She pointed specifically to the 2023-25 budget, which raised special education reimbursements for public schools only slightly from 30% to 33.3% despite the state’s $7 billion budget surplus.
The DPI report states that “on a positive note” more than half of all public schools and private schools participating in the Special Needs Scholarship Program, a program that allows a student with a disability to receive a state-funded private school scholarship, did not report any incidents of seclusion or restraint.
Ceretti said it should be kept in mind that “oftentimes when we have students that are put in these special needs scholarship programs that have IEP [individualized educational plan], long before their behavior probably reaches the point of seclusion or restraint, they are sent back to their public school.”
Approximately 87% of seclusions and 78% of restraints occurred in Wisconsin elementary schools. The report states the data is troubling because “younger students’ K-12 experiences may be adversely shaped by these potentially traumatic experiences.”
Advocates said that elementary school children’s unfamiliarity with school environments, need to learn about appropriate behavior in school and small physical size are some of the reasons they are involved in more of these incidents.
“Thinking of restraint and seclusion as involved in physically overpowering,” Ceretti said. “Teachers and staff will think twice about trying to physically overpower somebody who is their size whereas the little ones, it’s no less traumatic for them, but it is a size differential that does not work in the student’s favor.”
Seclusion and restraint practices are allowed under state law when a student “presents a clear, present, and imminent risk to the physical safety of the pupil or others and it is the least restrictive intervention feasible.”
This is DPI’s third report on seclusion and restraint practices as the agency was required to begin collecting the data under a bipartisan law adopted in 2019 that aimed to limit use of the practices. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic when many students were not physically in school, Juhnke said has been difficult to get a clear picture of the law’s impact.
“Whatever the comparison of the numbers from year to year, at this point, the comparison is quite flawed because the numbers we have are across the COVID time,” Juhnke said. “So next year’s numbers will be more useful for trends thinking.”
The report states that DPI is “eager to collect and analyze data for the 2022-23 academic year to analyze how it compares to previous years.”
“We must continue our commitment to reducing the frequency of these incidents, and we must especially focus on using this information to better inform and improve our systems and best practices when working with our students with disabilities,” Underly said.
The report does not include information about the race, gender, age or other demographic information of students involved in incidents because it is not required by state law.
Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, an attorney who advocated for the 2019 law, told the Wisconsin Examiner in an email that he was “dismayed at the remarkable lack of leadership which DPI continues to show on this issue.”
Noting that DPI at one point opposed collecting data on the issue, Spitzer-Resnick said the agency failed in the report to examine the data by district and school and doesn’t provide anything more than general guidance to districts. Some resources for reducing the practices in schools are included at the end of the report.
DPI’s communications officer, Chris Bucher, said in an email that the agency does analyze the seclusion and restraint data and utilizes it in a variety of ways. He said one way is by identifying outlier data on the use of seclusion and restraint with students with disabilities.
Bucher said that the agency will assign a DPI consultant to work with a district with data showing unusually high use to identify a root cause. Once a cause has been identified, DPI will work to support the district through practices including training on state law and requirements, behavioral intervention plans and trauma-informed practices as well as identifying grant support to address behavioral needs.
Cerretti said that Disability Rights Wisconsin will look at the data to see how the group can offer support and advocacy to decrease restraint and seclusion incidents.
“We shouldn’t even allow it,” Cerretti said.
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