Traverse City News and Events

Local Schools, Teachers Dealing With "Seclusion And Restraint" Laws, Policies

By Craig Manning | Nov. 30, 2019

How much leeway should teachers have in dealing with students who are being extremely disruptive or posing a safety risk to themselves or others? That question has been the source of much nationwide debate recently, as the practices of “seclusion and restraint” have become a lightning rod for controversy. In light of a 2017 state law change and a recent U.S. Department of Education initiative “to address the inappropriate use of restraint and seclusion,” local schools are finding themselves reckoning with the controversy, too.

In the Michigan school code, “seclusion” is defined as “the confinement of a pupil in a room or other space from which the pupil is physically prevented from leaving.” “Restraint” is defined as “an action that prevents or significantly restricts a pupil’s movement.” Since 2017, Michigan law has only allowed these practices as “a last-resort emergency safety intervention…necessitated by an ongoing emergency situation,” and as a strategy that “provides an opportunity for the pupil to regain self-control while maintaining the safety of the pupil and others.”

According to Jame McCall, associate superintendent of student services for Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS), the legal change has reshaped the way the district can respond to disruptions in the classroom. “Four or five years ago, we were able to remove a student who was causing a disruption by maybe having two trained adults physically remove the student from the classroom,” McCall says. “We no longer can actually physically remove the student if the student is not posing a physical threat.”

McCall adds that the use of emergency seclusion and restraint throughout TCAPS “is not a common occurrence,” and that teachers can typically deal with disruptive behavior by issuing warnings, sending a student to the office, or simply ignoring the behavior. In some cases, though, teachers may “clear the classroom” to deal with student disruptions that have escalated to the point of dangerous behavior. This method is a form of emergency seclusion in which the pupil causing the disruption is left in the classroom under the supervision of trained personnel. The teacher and the rest of the class move to a different space.

“Instead of removing the student who is causing the disruption, to minimize that disruption, we remove the classroom and take away the audience,” McCall says. “The thought is that the teacher will be able to continue instruction. But we also know that even moving a class from one place to another causes transition and disruption. We do everything we can to minimize that disruption while also knowing that our first priority is keeping everyone safe.”

Carol Greilick, assistant superintendent for special education with the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District (TBAISD), played a role in shaping Michigan’s 2017 law on emergency seclusion and restraint. In April 2016, Greilick testified in front of the Michigan House Education Committee, recommending several changes to the then-current language of the legislation. She says the legislation was initially conceived as an outright ban of seclusion and restraint in schools, but ultimately banned just non-emergency seclusion and restraint.

“I would have been concerned about a complete ban on the use of seclusion and restraint,” Greilick says. “Absolutely, it should only be used in emergency situations. But there are also situations where students are in danger of hurting themselves, or they are in danger of hurting someone else, and it's important to have that tool to protect students.”

She acknowledges there are “horror stories” around the use of seclusion and restraint in schools – including stories of students being secluded hundreds of times or dying after being restrained. These stories most often involve students with special needs, who statistically face seclusion and restraint at a much higher rate than others.

In January, the Department of Education launched the “Initiative to Address the Inappropriate Use of Restraint and Seclusion,” which Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said was intended in large part “to support children with disabilities.” The initiative will conduct compliance reviews, assist schools in tracking data related to seclusion and restraint, and help schools understand legal requirements regarding these practices.

In Michigan, a key component of school compliance is what is called “Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) training.” TBAISD has 18 employees who are certified with CPI to provide “Nonviolent Crisis Intervention” training, which is offered throughout the district's five-county region.

According to Brooke Laurent, TBAISD’s behavior department supervisor and a special education supervisor with three schools, the CPI training is a two-day process that focuses not just on seclusion and restraint, but also on avoiding the need to use those practices. After the initial two-day training, personnel need to go through a four-hour refresher course every other year.

Under state law, only teachers and school staff members who are CPI-certified (and who also are trained in CPR and first aid) can carry out restraint or supervise students in seclusion. Laurent says that most districts, TCAPS included, have at least a few of these “Key Identified Personnel” in each school building.

Schools must also follow numerous rigid state guidelines, including time limits and documentation standards. For instance, schools are legally obligated to notify a parent or guardian any time their student is secluded or restrained. After that notification, McCall says the next step would be to review the incident and make a plan to prevent something similar from happening in the future.

“What we would ask is: ‘Are we meeting the student's needs?’ Because, clearly, something is happening for that student’s behavior to be elevated to that level,” she says. “So, what other supports can we put in place to be able to support the student? On rare occasions, we might look at the situation and say, ‘This behavior is not something we can support within the general education system.’ So, what is the next placement that we would be looking at for a child who has that level of disruptive behavior? We have an entire continuum of supports and placements throughout the district, so we would call a meeting and a team would make that decision.”

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