This story is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune.
Congressional Democrats introduced legislation Thursday that would make it illegal to put students in seclusion and would limit the use of physical restraint in schools that receive federal funds.
The bill, called the Keeping All Students Safe Act, would enact a national ban on restraints that can restrict breathing, including prone restraint where students are held face down on the floor and supine where they are held face up. Other restraints in the standing or seated positions could be used only when there is an immediate risk of serious physical harm.
Under the bill, physical restraints could not be included as an option in written behavior and education plans for students with disabilities. That would further emphasize that restraints are to be used only in an emergency and when other efforts to work with children in crisis have failed.
Seclusion, or confining students alone in a room or area they can’t leave, would be banned entirely on the grounds that it can be traumatic and isn’t helpful for a student in crisis.
The legislation was motivated by differences among rules at the state level, with some states placing few if any restrictions on seclusion and restraint and many providing no oversight, said Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., one of the bill’s sponsors in the House.
“A lot of the states do a terrible job of that. It’s been such a huge problem, it demands national standards,” Beyer said in an interview Thursday.
“The primary thing is there are other techniques that work just fine,” he added. “You don’t have to isolate them.”
The legislation comes one year to the day after ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune published an investigation, “The Quiet Rooms,” that found public schools throughout Illinois had put students in seclusion, isolated from their peers, every day for reasons that violated state law.
The investigation, cited by the lawmakers who introduced the legislation, also found that school employees sometimes physically restrained children not because there was an emergency but out of frustration or as punishment. Similar legislation has been passed in the House before but failed to gain support in the Senate.
New federal data, released last month, confirmed widespread use of seclusion and restraint in Illinois and across the country in 2017-18, the most recent year for which data was collected. In Illinois, school employees reported using seclusion or restraint at least 23,530 times on at least 5,197 students. Nationally, more than 100,000 students were subjected to the practices.
Other Midwestern states — Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Indiana — also stood out among the most frequent users of these interventions, according to an analysis of the federal data by the Tribune and ProPublica Illinois. Wisconsin secluded more students at school than any other state and was second only to Texas in the number of students restrained in the 2017-18 school year, the analysis shows.
Most of the children who were restrained or secluded nationwide had disabilities. The data shows a disproportionate number of affected students were identified as Black and as boys.
Seclusion rooms are typically small and empty spaces, sometimes padded, that are meant to be used only in a safety emergency. Seclusion does not include times when a student chooses to take a break from class to calm down or go to a sensory room, a space with equipment and tools to help students regulate their emotions.
Disabilities advocates say putting children in seclusion rooms is inhumane and causes lasting trauma, though some school officials say they need the option to educate students with significant behavioral challenges. Some Republicans have opposed similar legislation in the past because they said states are better equipped to identify students’ and schools’ needs.
“No parent should have to send their child to school knowing that his or her child could be pinned down or locked in a closet by school staff,” said Annie Acosta, director of fiscal and family support policy for The Arc, which advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“A federal ban is needed to ensure that all students are protected, not just those who live in states that have some degree of protection. This is a civil rights issue that should not have any geographic boundaries.”
The legislation would require states to have enough school workers who are trained in state-approved programs that teach better ways to address crisis situations. It also would require that parents be notified the same day their child is restrained, followed by more detailed written notification and then a meeting within five days. States also would be required to report annually on their use of restraint.
The law would allow students who are subjected to seclusion or restraint in a way that violates the law to file a civil lawsuit against the school or program. The U.S. Department of Education would be required to investigate complaints and withhold payments to schools found in violation. The department also could award grant funding to help schools reduce the use of seclusion and restraint.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., the Senate sponsor of the measure, called seclusion and restraint “inhumane” and sometimes fatal. He said the legislation would keep students safe “while providing school staff with alternatives to address disruptive behavior with evidence-based, trauma-informed, proactive strategies and the resources to put those alternatives into practice.”
In Illinois, after publication of “The Quiet Rooms,” the State Board of Education banned locking students in seclusion rooms and began requiring public and private schools to alert the state when they use the interventions. Illinois rules do not ban prone restraint, but the General Assembly plans to take up legislation in January that would prohibit it.
The federal legislation also would prohibit the use of mechanical and chemical restraints. Both already are outlawed in Illinois, but records obtained this week by ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune revealed how one suburban special education program still used mechanical restraints in a program for students with disabilities.
The Mount Prospect-based Northwest Suburban Special Education Organization, which operates several schools and programs for about 400 students, used lap belts to restrain students and restrict them from taking part in classroom activities, according to an Illinois State Board of Education investigation.
ISBE investigated the district after a complaint last December by an occupational therapist at one of the schools. The complaint alleged that a student was restrained with a lap belt on several days during lunch, art and morning circle time, upsetting the student and causing him or her to kick and hit. The student also was sent to timeout while in the lap belt after throwing food. The complaint was about that one student, but ISBE looked at how restraints were used districtwide.
ISBE determined that there was no medical or therapeutic need for the district to use the lap belts and that they were “utilized as a behavioral restraint to promote attention to task.” The cooperative, known as NSSEO, denied to ISBE that it used lap belts to punish students or out of convenience, contending they were used to help students sit with therapeutic support, according to ISBE’s report.
The district superintendent did not immediately respond to a request for comment. NSSEO used physical restraint more often — 1,170 times — than any other district in Illinois during the 2017-18 school year, according to the new federal data.
Congressional efforts to ban seclusion have repeatedly stalled since 2009. Legislation was last introduced in 2018.
But “The Quiet Rooms” and the swift action Gov. J.B. Pritzker took to ban isolated, locked seclusion in Illinois the day after the story published put the issue in the national spotlight again, Beyer said.
Beyer said he believes this effort to ban seclusion will gain broad bipartisan support, both because of greater public awareness of the issue and because legislative staffers worked with school groups to find common ground in the bill’s language. He said he doesn’t expect the bill to be voted on during the current session, but supporters will try to gather more sponsors and reintroduce it when lawmakers reconvene next year.