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Lawmakers Vow to Push for a Statewide Ban on Face-Down Restraint of Children in Illinois Schools, Despite Reversal

After a group of schools pressured the Illinois State Board of Education to reverse its ban on a dangerous form of physical restraint of students, lawmakers say they’ll seek to permanently ban the practice.

This investigation is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune.

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State lawmakers said Monday that they will push for a law to ban face-down restraint of children in Illinois schools after learning that education officials had reversed their positions and decided to allow the controversial practice.

The lawmakers’ response came after the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois reported Monday that the Illinois State Board of Education, pressured by a few schools that regularly use prone restraint, quietly decided to allow the technique until July 2021 with the hope that it would then be phased out.

“Prone restraints carry the most serious risk to students and are unacceptable. When students return to school after the Stay at Home order, they should not be put in a situation where their most basic dignity can be stripped away,” Sen. Ann Gillespie, a Democrat from Arlington Heights, said in a statement.

Gillespie and Rep. Jonathan Carroll, a Democrat from Northbrook, introduced legislation in the Senate and House last fall that would ban isolated timeouts and limit the use of physical restraints in schools after a ProPublica Illinois-Tribune investigation, “The Quiet Rooms,” revealed widespread misuse of both. Their bills, as filed, did not directly address prone restraint.

More than 30 states already ban prone restraints. ISBE had originally voted to ban the practice, but the agency then reluctantly “negotiated” with the legislative rule-making committee to allow prone restraint for a year, a spokeswoman said.

prone
Prone, or facedown, restraints begin like supine restraints. Employees then turn the student onto his front and secure his arms and legs. Workers are told to avoid putting pressure on the student’s back, which can inhibit breathing. (Jemal R. Brinson/Chicago Tribune)

The rules also restrict the reasons schools can use isolated timeouts, require schools to alert the state every time it uses seclusion or restraint, and mandate more annual training for workers. Prone and supine, or face-up, floor restraints can be used only in narrow circumstances and with additional staff review.

ISBE spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said Monday that the agency was under pressure to allow prone restraint because the legislative rule-making committee had said it would seriously consider not accepting the new rules otherwise.

“Following weeks of conversations, it became clear that it would not be possible to move forward with a ban on the use of prone restraint via rule-making at this time,” Matthews said in response to questions about why ISBE changed course.

“ISBE will fully support legislation to ban prone restraint,” Matthews said.

The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, which reviews new and existing rules proposed by state agencies, voted last week on the new rules.

Of the 149 public comments submitted to ISBE to advocate for prone restraint, more than 60% came from individuals affiliated with Giant Steps or Marklund Day School, two small private schools that serve students with autism. They said the restraint is effective for students who have difficulty regulating their emotions and is safe when done properly.

The co-chair of the joint committee, Rep. Keith Wheeler, a North Aurora Republican, said he found the pleas from the two schools to be reasonable given the challenging students they enroll. Both schools are in his district.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs is on the Giant Steps Advisory Board. Durkin’s chief of staff asked that Giant Steps’ preferred language for laws governing seclusion and restraint be sent to ISBE and the legislative rule-making committee, and it was, according to an email obtained through a public-records request.

Wheeler said Monday that he’s not championing prone restraint as a practice, but is concerned about whether the rules and law consider students with more challenging behavior.

“If we were to follow through the initial intent of banning prone restraint, then what do we expect to do to help these students and, more importantly, the staff members who help these students?” Wheeler asked.

Durkin did not respond to a request for comment.

Carroll said Monday he was disappointed that “special interests have manipulated this process” to keep prone restraint in schools even though the consensus among disabilities advocates and many educators was that it should be banned.

“We’re trying to thread a needle here that’s based on science, based on the consensus of medical communities, and it’s distressing when politics get in the way,” Gillespie said in an interview.

“The Quiet Rooms” investigation found that few public schools use floor restraints, but those that do, use the restraints regularly: About two dozen districts used prone and supine restraint nearly 1,800 times in the 15-month period analyzed.

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Portrait of Jodi S. Cohen

Jodi S. Cohen

Jodi S. Cohen is a reporter for ProPublica Illinois, where she has revealed misconduct in a psychiatric research study at the University of Illinois at Chicago, exposed a college financial aid scam and uncovered flaws in the Chicago Police Department’s disciplinary system. Previously, Jodi worked at the Chicago Tribune for 14 years, where she covered higher education and helped expose a secret admissions system at the University of Illinois, among other investigations. Contact Jodi by email and on Twitter.

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