The Use of Restraints in Educational Settings - Expert Article

The use of restraints in an educational setting is considered a late-stage intervention, typically reserved for incidents where students have failed to respond to earlier de-escalation techniques and pose an imminent safety risk to themself or others. However, data suggests that the use of restraints has remained consistently high since 2009-2010 when school districts were first required to report restraints, and they are disproportionately used on students with disabilities.

In this article, special education and school administration expert, Dr. Theresa Kreider explains the intended use of restraints within the educational setting, where restraint use can go wrong, and some of the factors that should be considered when investigating these matters.

The Use of Restraints in Educational Settings - Expert Article

How Widespread is the Use of Restraints within Education?

The United States Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) reported that 101,990 public school students were subjected to physical restraint or seclusion during the 2017-2018 school year, which is the latest reported data at the time of this article. There is great variance in how school districts and states report restraint usage, so it is difficult to have a comprehensive understanding of the number of restraints that are employed in schools each year. The reporting variance suggests that the number may exceed the roughly 100,000 students that were reported by the CRDC.

Furthermore, of the students physically restrained, 80% were students with disabilities, and 41% of students secluded were students with disabilities. These numbers are significantly disproportionate considering that students with disabilities make up only about 13% of total enrollment.

School staff often lack proper training to de-escalate students whose behaviors are a manifestation of their disabilities. This lack of training results in the overuse of physical restraints and seclusion of students with disabilities and often escalates a student’s behavior which may lead to injuries to both students and staff.

What is a Physical Restraint and When are they Used?

There are three main categories of restraints used within the school setting:

  • Physical Restraint – A personal restriction that immobilizes or reduces the ability of a student to move his or her torso, arms, legs, or head freely.
  • Mechanical Restraint – The use of any device or equipment to restrict a student’s freedom of movement.
  • Seclusion – The involuntary confinement of a student alone in a room or area from which the student is physically prevented from leaving.

All public school districts and approved private schools are required to have a policy on the use of restraints and seclusion that, at a minimum, outlines that physical restraint or seclusion should not be used in school settings except in situations where the child’s behavior poses imminent danger or serious physical harm to the child or to others. Mechanical restraints are never to be used in the school setting except in cases to provide protection for students, such as the use of a harness on the school bus. Such policies outline that other de-escalation interventions must be used prior to employing a restraint and that a restraint must be discontinued as soon as the imminent danger dissipates.

Despite the existence of these policies, the use of restraints is commonplace and there are reports each year of students and/or staff being injured, sometimes fatally, as a result of being physically restrained or employing physical restraint methods in schools. There are several reasons why this may occur.

  • Failure to De-escalate: Most public school districts provide staff training on how to verbally deescalate a student; however, this training is typically completed in a 2- or 3-day session, and not revisited on a regular basis. When a crisis situation occurs, staff may fail to employ the proper de-escalation strategies and react in ways that further escalate the student behaviors.
  • Employ Restraint Too Quickly: “Imminent danger” is a very subjective term and means different things to different staff members. What one staff member may view as an imminent danger another staff member may see as a window of opportunity to de-escalate a situation. Given such varying factors, there are many instances where a restraint is employed too quickly. There should be a clear understanding of imminent danger among all individuals in the school setting who will be employing these techniques.
  • Implement Restraint Incorrectly: In a crisis situation there are instances where untrained or undertrained staff, in an attempt to control a student, will implement a hold incorrectly or will not follow proper procedures of having another staff member present while implementing a restraint resulting in injury to student, staff, or both.

Determining if a Restraint Violated the Standard of Care

An investigation to determine if the use of restraint was proper and appropriate goes beyond the details of the specific incident. It is common for experts to review, among other documents, policies and procedures for the school and school district, training completed by those involved, Individualized Education Plans and behavioral history of the student(s), and the incident history of both student and staff. Based on this review our experts will be able to provide a reliable assessment of the appropriateness of the response to specific incidents.

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