THE Virginia Board of Education is seeking public comments through April 19 on proposed regulations regarding the in-school use of physical restraint and seclusion for children with serious behavioral problems. The regulations are a reasonable middle ground between eliminating these procedures entirely, as some activists have called for, ensuring that misbehaving students are not abused themselves, and protecting the rights of other students, teachers and staff members.
The Virginia Department of Education’s revised “Policies and Procedures for Managing Student Behaviors in Emergency Situations” require school divisions to initially use less restrictive measures than physical restraint or seclusion to manage disruptive students and, once they’ve calmed down, to return them to the learning environment as soon as possible.
The guidelines further state that “physical restraint and seclusion should only be used in emergency situations, when other less intrusive alternatives have failed.”
In 2015, the General Assembly ordered the VDOE to adopt regulations on seclusion and restraint that were consistent with the 2009 guidelines. The department came up with 15 principles governing their use.
“Repeated use for an individual child, multiple uses within the same classroom, or multiple uses by the same individual, should trigger a review,” according to the proposed regulations, which would affect all 132 school divisions in the commonwealth.
This is not about corporal punishment, defined as the deliberate infliction of pain as punishment for misbehavior, which is prohibited by state law. The regulations do not allow the use of “aversive stimuli,” including noxious odors, water sprays, air blasts, forced exercise or deprivation of physical necessities, such as food, water or trips to the restroom.
This is about restraining and isolating students who pose a physical danger to themselves or others or a threat to school property.
Obviously, locking a preschooler in a closet for throwing a crayon, as one Virginia resident reported happened to her 4-year-old grandchild, is not an emergency situation and the use of seclusion in such cases is totally inappropriate.
But what if a student is kicking, scratching, or hitting another student, teacher or staff member? Getting kicked is not life-threatening, but it is painful. No student—even those with autism or other disabilities —should be allowed to harm another person just because he or she is having a bad day. Similarly, no student should be allowed to trash a classroom, destroy expensive equipment, or otherwise wreak havoc in school.
Restraining out-of-control students from physically attacking their classmates or teachers or destroying school property, and removing them from the classroom setting until the crisis is over, is sometimes the only way to deal with the situation that protects the rights of all concerned.
Conversely, allowing such anti-social behavior is not only detrimental to the rest of the school population, it does the misbehaving students no favors.
Students who don’t learn how to cope with their negative emotions without resorting to violence or disruption in an educational setting, where they should also be getting an appropriate level of emotional support, will be at higher risk of acting out in less-forgiving venues.
Transparency is absolutely necessary to ensure that the use of physical restraint and seclusion is not abused, used punitively for minor offenses, or for the convenience of teachers who are just tired of dealing with a difficult child.
To that end, the proposed guidelines include a requirement that each incident be documented in writing and reported within one calendar day.
However, the guidelines exempt common behavior management tools such as time-outs, in-school suspensions, detention for disruptive behavior, and removal of a student from the classroom for short periods of time, as long as they are not physically restrained for misbehavior that requires correction, but does not rise to the level of an emergency.
Who decides what’s an emergency? State law mandates that “due deference shall be given to reasonable judgments at the time of the event which were made by a teacher, principal or other person employed by a school board or employed in a school operated by the commonwealth.”
In her public comments on the proposed regulations, Dena Rosenkrantz, a senior staff attorney at the Virginia Education Association, pointed out that “state law recognizes situations in which physical contact or use of reasonable force is necessary. State law protects school employees’ exercise of judgment in the moment as to such actions. And state law protects [a] school employee who acts in good faith in the course of school employment without gross negligence or willful misconduct.”
School personnel who have to deal with disruptive, aggressive and sometimes violent students day in and day out deserve the benefit of the doubt in such matters.