AUGUSTA — A bill before the Legislature that would prohibit schools in Maine from using restraints and seclusion rooms on students with behavioral disabilities came under fire Monday at a State House press conference.
Parents of children with behavioral disabilities, special education teachers, administrators, behavioral specialists and others urged lawmakers to keep in place Maine Department of Education rules that allow schools to temporarily restrain and seclude students when they become a danger to themselves or others.
Critics said restraint and seclusion are necessary tools for teachers to use when a student becomes unmanageable and poses a risk of harm themselves or to others.
Wendy Perkins, of Auburn, said if her non-verbal, autistic daughter’s school loses the ability to seclude her at times she will no longer be able to attend school in Maine.
“She’s aggressive, she’s self-injurious, she’s mean but she’s the love of everyone at that school, everybody knows her, everybody loves to work with her but she needs that seclusion,” Perkins said. “Taking that away, takes away her ability to calm down. Takes away her ability to self-regulate. That seclusion gives her time to deescalate and reregulate herself so she can come back out and be herself.”
Dr. Michelle Hathaway, the director of the nonprofit Margaret Murphy Center for Children, said seclusion and restraint were necessary and effective tools for some of the most difficult behaviors some children deal with. She said the bill would prevent staff from actually keeping students safe while also put staff at risk.
As students grow older and larger they can become even more dangerous and difficult to keep calm, she said, and students in programs at her center are often referred there after multiple incidents in public schools.
” It is not unusual to see referrals for children who have broken the noses of well-intentioned teachers,” Hathaway said. “These students, often the size of grown adults, will often be aggressive to other students and will 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 advocates for the disabled restraints and exclusion do more damage than good, and that Maine schools are abusing students when they forcibly remove them from the classroom. Millett’s bill would apply not only to public schools but also to those that offer programs exclusively for students with special needs.
The controversial practices have been the subject of numerous legislative battles in recent years, including a law change in 2013 that led to sweeping new rules and detailed documentation for Maine schools. Following those changes, complaints from parents and others dropped off to zero and supporters of the rules say seclusion and restraints are only being used in the most dangerous situations.
But data from the Maine Department of Education on restraints and seclusions shows a steady increase in their use. In 2020, schools restrained students 17,262 times, up from 8,018 times in 2015. Students were secluded 4,417 in 2020, up from 2,802 for the same five year period.
Millett and others said that in 90 percent of the cases, students who are being restrained and secluded are disabled. They say Maine has the highest use of the practices in the country.
However, supporters of the rules say Maine has the most detailed reporting criteria in the U.S., while some states don’t track the practice at all.
“The trauma of being restrained and secluded in schools can have lasting effects on our students, negatively impacting academic progress and increasing the risk of contact with the juvenile justice system,” Millett said in a prepared statement.
She said she was crafting an amendment to the bill to delay implementation of the ban, to give schools time to train their staffs on other ways to deescalate dangerous situations with students. But she did not say Monday how much of a delay she would be proposing. It has also not yet been determined how much the bill would cost to implement were it approved by the full Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills.
Millett’s bill, L.D. 1376, has gained the support of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, Autism Society of Maine, Disability Rights Maine, Maine Developmental Disabilities Council and the Maine Parent Federation.
Atlee Reilly, managing attorney with Disability Rights Maine, which supports banning the practices, said they are harmful and counterproductive.
“These responses have no therapeutic or educational value, do not lead to improved behavior, and potentially have long lasting negative consequences,” Reilly said. “Although these practices appear to have been normalized in Maine, where rates of seclusion and restraint are among the highest in the nation, restraining and secluding kids is not necessary, or inevitable.”
But some parents, long-time special education teachers and others disagree. They say banning the use of restraints and seclusion in Maine will force a costly bill onto the state and on local school districts, as they will still be required under state and federal law to provide an education to these disabled students who will likely end up in special schools outside of Maine — possibly separated from the families.
An attempt to amend the bill by Rep. Shelia Lyman, R-Livermore Falls, failed along an 8-5, party-line vote in the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. Lyman, who taught public school for 36 years, said her amendment would have put the current state rules into law, clarifying that restraints or seclusion could only be used for the most dangerous situations.
Lyman said testimony on the original bill included misleading information, including references to the murder of George Floyd, the black man whose death in Minneapolis last year launched a wave of protest across the world over police brutality against Black people.
“Restraint and seclusion are not punitive acts,” Lyman said. “Rather these tools offer support for students struggling in school with emotional and/or behavioral control. The option of seclusion ensures the continued integration of these students in the classroom.”
Lyman said the need to restrain or seclude a student to keep them safe or others safe is “heart wrenching” for all teachers but the practices are use to provide safety to the student, their classmates and school staff.
“When restraint or seclusion is used I know it is an act of kindness offered by deeply caring and compassionate adults,” Lyman said.
The bill will come before the full Legislature for additional votes in the weeks ahead.