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Journalists: How to Report on Restraints in U.S. Schools

Spurred by a rash of injuries, deaths and bad publicity, psychiatric facilities and other institutions serving children have worked for more than a decade to reduce the practices of physically restraining children or isolating them in rooms against their will to control them. Federal law and regulation demanded it. Yet, restraining or secluding children in public schools remains perfectly legal under federal law – and in most state laws and school districts.

We are publishing a story this week using federal data that shows such practices are happening regularly in public schools across the country. New federal data, released this spring and cleaned by ProPublica, shows that restraints and seclusions were used at least 267,000 times in the 2011-2012 school year.

Basically, this is a local story everywhere. We are sharing a spreadsheet of restraint and seclusion data broken down by state, district, and school. (Beware: Underreporting is rampant.)

Hundreds of kids are being injured, some seriously, each year during restraints or seclusions, according to government reports and advocates. Parents have powerful stories to tell. Most of restraints and seclusions happen to kids with disabilities– and are more likely to happen to kids with autism or emotional/behavioral problems. I found way more examples of restraints/seclusions gone wrong than I could use in my story. There are tons of families out there who have experienced this and want to share their stories. Advocates are able to connect reporters with them and we also plan to match up reporters with tips we receive from people in their coverage area.

The issue is getting some attention now because of proposed federal legislation. There will be a press conference this June 24th to promote the issue and the bills. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., re-introduced a bill last year to ban restraints and seclusion except in emergencies. This February, Sen. Tom Harkin, D- Iowa, followed up by re-introducing the Senate legislation. Federal lawmakers have sought a version of this legislation for more than four years, but it has been stalled.

One final thing to note is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Some districts, such as Montgomery County, Va., have been able to limit restraints/seclusions or eliminate them altogether by using research-based strategies for managing bad behavior (the one most cited is called Positive Behavior and Supports). All school districts are supposed to be using such approaches, but aren’t.

There are three essential elements to a story about restraints and seclusions in public schools –data, policies, and families/schools.

But first, some definitions. These are what the federal Office of Civil Rights uses when collecting data.

  • Restraints are physical holds in which a student’s ability to move their head, torso, arms or legs are limited.
  • Mechanical” restraints use something artificial like straps, handcuffs or bungee cords to do the restraining.
  • Seclusion” refers to situations in which a student is confined against their will in a room they are prevented from leaving.

The bottom line is that federal law permits these tactics in schools near you still even though kids are getting hurt and the practices have no benefit therapeutically or academically.

How to know what the policies are in your area

States and localities have widely varying policies on restraints and seclusions.  

We have a chart showing where your state stands around six key elements that are outlined in the reform bills and U.S. Department of Education non-mandatory guidance. In some states, these provisions apply to disabled students only – in others they apply to all students. The policy elements are:

  •  Does the state limit restraints to emergencies?
  •  Does the state limit seclusion to emergencies?
  •  Does the state require parental notification?
  •  Is seclusion prohibited in the state?
  •  Are prone restraints or those that restrict breathing prohibited?
  •  Are mechanical restraints prohibited?

One obvious question to explore: Is your state one of those that restricts the practices more or not? Where is it lagging?

If you use anything directly from the chart, you should credit Jessica Butler, a national advocate for children with autism who did the research for the map. She is also identified as the source in the chart.

She’s also a lawyer and tracks state legislation. She has compiled detailed reports (links at the bottom) and is happy to help reporters. She can be reached at Jessica Butler [email protected].

*Note that the information provided in the spreadsheet should be double-checked for your state. Also, we did not consider “educational disruption” and “property damage” to qualify as “emergencies.”

How you can find the data in your area – and what to watch out for

Look up your local school/district in our spreadsheet (download here). The source is the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education. We cleaned the original raw data from the office in consultation with them.

This is the first time the government has tried to gather data on the issue from all schools and districts in the country. Still, only a third of districts reported at least one instance of seclusion/restraint. It’s not clear if that is because districts have not used the tactics or that they’re simply not tracking or reporting them. The three largest school districts in the country -- New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles – all reported zero instances of restraints and seclusions. We encourage following up on instances where districts have reported zeros. 

Schools that did report use of the tactics said they used it an average of 18 times a year. Hundreds of schools used restraints far more often – sometimes reporting dozens or hundreds of uses.

Also, there is the potential for misreporting in the data. We excluded about 40,000 instances of restraints and seclusions altogether in which it appeared schools entered the data wrong.  All numbers should be verified with schools/districts if they are going to be cited independently of large, rounded nationwide numbers.

Also, some states keep their own data on restraints. It’s worth a call to see if yours does.

*In our spreadsheet, note that “definitions” that will explain the column heading can be found in the worksheet titled “definitions.”

**Note that we have left the dirty data in the spreadsheet so folks would see what their district/school misreported – it is highlighted in red and should be excluded from totals.

How to find families and those affected

Another source for stories is advocates and lawyers for the disabled. How do you find them? Each state is required by law to have a “Protection and Advocacy” organization that provides assistance to disabled people. These offices form a network under the National Disabilities Rights Network. The state and national organizations have been collecting examples of abuses of restraints and seclusions in public schools for years. Here is where you find the one near you.

Finally, here is a list of useful reports on restraints and seclusions in public schools:


Sign up to be matched with sources in your area

As we noted above, we are collecting tips from educators, parents and others with stories of restraint and seclusion — and we're eager to share them with other reporters. Sign up with ProPublica’s Reporting Network below to be connected with sources near you. We will notify you when we find a match in your area. 

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