Special needs students disproportionately subjected to seclusion, restraint

By: - May 19, 2022 5:34 am
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The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) released a report Wednesday documenting incidents of seclusion and physical restraint of students in Wisconsin schools during the 2020-21 school year.

The annual report, required under a 2019 state law, shows that public and private Special Needs Scholarship Program schools statewide reported 4,314 instances of seclusion and 4,949 instances of physical restraint last year. Students with disabilities who have individualized education programs (IEPs) were subjected to seclusion and restraint at a much higher rate than other students, comprising 85% of all seclusion incidents and 84% of all physical restraint incidents reported for the 2020-21 school year.

“It is somewhat unfathomable to me that, in a year when hardly any kids were in school because of the pandemic, thousands of children with disabilities were secluded and restrained,” says Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, an attorney in Madison who has represented disabled students and their families.

Because many schools shifted from in-person to virtual instruction during the 2020-21 school year, DPI released a statement along with the report urging caution when comparing seclusion and restraint statistics across schools and to previous years. 

“These figures represent the lived experiences of students and staff in our state, and we must use this information to improve our systems and practices to reduce the frequency and need for these events,” state schools superintendent Jill Underly said in the statement. “That is especially true for our students with disabilities, who are far more likely to be subjected to these practices than their peers.”

Underly added that “our educators continue to see the stark impact of the social and emotional turmoil experienced by learners and their families, and we need to do more to address why seclusion and restraint must be used — even as a last resort. Our schools need meaningful, ongoing investment of resources beyond one-time, federal relief dollars to meet these challenges for us to see a reduction in the use of these practices.”

The use of physical restraint, defined as measures that immobilize or reduce students’ ability to move their head, neck and torso, as well as involuntary confinement of students in isolation rooms, has been controversial.

In March, an off-duty Kenosha police officer working as a school security guard knelt on a 12-year-old girl’s neck to restrain her during a lunchroom fight and then handcuffed her to a table. Her parents have filed a lawsuit claiming their daughter suffered a traumatic brain injury during the incident.

In September 2021, the Madison school board revised its policies to ban some methods of restraint and to ensure that secluded students are supervised and can’t be put in locked rooms. The new policy also requires that parents be informed within a day when such measures are taken and bars schools from reporting incidents anonymously to DPI.

Spitzer-Resnick says he is disappointed that DPI has not done more to provide guidance on how data on seclusion and restraint can be used to identify and learn from schools that don’t use the measures at all. 

“In larger school districts, let’s look at which of our schools are doing a really good job and hardly ever or maybe never resorting to seclusion,” he says. “Children are not radically different. When you see big differences [among schools] in the use of aversives —seclusion and restraint — that tells you something about leadership and how staff responds,” he says.


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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.