AUGUSTA, Maine – A bill banning Maine schools from using restraint systems and seclusion for students with behavioral disorders came under fire at a state house press conference this week.
Parents of children with behavioral disorders, special education teachers, administrators, behavioral specialists, and others urged lawmakers to uphold the Maine Department of Education rules that allow schools to temporarily detain and exclude students if they become a danger to themselves or others.
They said reticence and seclusion are necessary tools for teachers when a student becomes unmanageable and poses risks to themselves or others.
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Wendy Perkins of Auburn said her daughter, who is nonverbal and has autism, will no longer be able to attend school in Maine if seclusion is no longer an option.
“She’s aggressive, she’s self-harming, she’s mean, but she’s everyone’s love at this school, everyone knows her, everyone loves working with her, but she needs that seclusion,” said Perkins. “If she takes that away, she won’t be able to calm down. Takes away their ability to self-regulate. This seclusion gives her time to de-escalate and re-regulate so that she can come out and be herself. “
Dr. Michelle Hathaway, director of the Margaret Murphy Center for Children, a nonprofit, said seclusion and restraint are necessary and effective tools to deal with some of the most difficult child behaviors. She said the bill would prevent staff from protecting students and putting staff at risk.
As students get older and bigger, they can become more dangerous and difficult to stay calm, she said, and students in programs at her center are often referred there after multiple public school incidents.
“It’s not uncommon to see referrals for children who have broken the noses of well-meaning teachers,” said Hathaway. “These students, often the size of adult adults, are often aggressive towards other students and 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 people with disabilities have said that restriction and exclusion do more harm than good. Millett’s bill would apply to public schools and those that offer programs exclusively to students with special needs.
“The trauma of being withheld and withdrawn in schools can have lasting effects on our students, adversely affect academic progress, and increase the risk of exposure to juvenile justice,” Millett said in a prepared statement.
The controversial practices have been the subject of numerous legislative battles in recent years, including an amendment in 2013 that resulted in extensive new rules and detailed documentation requirements for schools in Maine. After these changes, complaints from parents and others went down to zero, and proponents of the rules say seclusion and restraint are only used in the most dangerous situations.
However, Maine Department of Education data on restrictions and seclusion shows a steady increase in usage. Schools withheld students 17,262 times in 2020, up from 8,018 times in 2015. Students withdrew 4,417 times in 2020, up from 2,802 over the same five-year period.
Millett and others said 90% of these cases detained and withdrew students with disabilities. They say Maine has the highest level of commitment to the practice in the country.
However, proponents of the rules say Maine has the most detailed reporting criteria in the US, while some states do not follow the practice at all.
Millett said she was working on an amendment to the bill that would delay implementation to give schools time to train staff on alternative methods of de-escalating dangerous situations with students. But she didn’t say how long she would suggest a delay. How much the bill would cost to implement was also not included.
Millett’s bill, LD 1376, was endorsed by the American Civil Liberties Union in Maine, the Autism Society in Maine, Disability Rights Maine, the Maine Developmental Disabilities Council, and the Maine Parent Federation.
Atlee Reilly, executive attorney at Disability Rights Maine, said seclusion and restraint were harmful and counterproductive.
“These reactions are of no therapeutic or educational value, do not lead to improved behavior, and have potentially long-lasting negative consequences,” said Reilly. “While these practices appear normalized in Maine, where seclusion and retention rates are among the highest in the nation, holding back and locking up children is not necessary or inevitable.”
But some parents, longtime special educators, and others disagree. They say banning the use of restrictions and seclusion would be costly to the state and local school districts as they would continue to be legally required to provide education for students with disabilities who would likely end up in special schools outside of Maine – possibly separate from their families.
An attempt by Rep. Sheila Lyman, R-Livermore Falls, to change the bill failed in an 8-5 vote in the Legislature’s Education and Culture Committee. Lyman, who taught public schools for 36 years, said her change would have put current state rules in place and made it clear that restrictions or seclusion could only be applied in the most dangerous situations.
According to Lyman, the testimony on the original bill contained misleading information, including references to the murder of George Floyd, the black whose death last year sparked a wave of protests in Minneapolis against police brutality against blacks.
“Restraint and isolation are not punitive measures,” Lyman said. “Rather, these tools provide support for students struggling with emotional and / or behavioral control in school. The possibility of seclusion ensures the continuous integration of these students into the classroom. “
Lyman said holding back or locking up a student to protect him or her or others is “heartbreaking” for all teachers, but it can protect students, their classmates and school staff.
“When restraint or seclusion is used, I know that it is an act of kindness offered by deeply caring and compassionate adults,” Lyman said.
The draft law will be submitted to the full legislature for further approval in the coming weeks.
© 2021 Portland Press Herald
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