Cathy McMorris Rodgers Introduces Bipartisan Legislation to Protect Children from Abuse in Schools

Dec 09, 2009

Legislation will, for the first time, address seclusion and restraint in schools; Embodies principles set by Obama administration

WASHINGTON, D.C.U.S. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and George Miller (D-CA) today introduced legislation that would, for the first time, protect all children in schools from harmful uses of restraint and seclusion. The legislation embodies principles outlined in a letter U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan sent to Committee Chairmen Miller today. U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) is also expected to introduce companion legislation today in the Senate. The lawmakers unveiled the bill at a press conference this morning; click here to watch (67.4 MB file).

A U.S. Government Accountability Office report released last spring exposed hundreds of cases of schoolchildren being abused as a result of inappropriate uses of restraint and seclusion, often involving untrained staff. In some cases, children died. A disproportionate number of these victims were students with disabilities.

“As a parent, when I send my son Cole to school, my husband Brian and I send him with the expectation that he is safe from danger. We entrust him to teachers, principals, and aides. And we know those school personnel have done an outstanding job to help him and keep him safe. Yet, we know this has not been the case for other children, particularly children with disabilities who are the most vulnerable and need the most protection,” said McMorris Rodgers, a member of the House Education and Labor Committee and vice chair of the House Republican Conference. “I’ve looked into this and have come to the conclusion that there is a lack of training. As difficult situations arise, teachers or principals just don’t know what to do. The legislation that we are introducing today gives states the needed guidance and resources to enable teachers and school personnel to handle difficult situations in the most positive manner possible.”

 “Something is very wrong when our children are at risk in their own classrooms,” said Miller, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee who requested the GAO’s investigation. “In some cases, the abuses these kids are suffering are nothing short of torture inflicted at the hands of the very staff we entrust with their safety. Today is a critical first step toward finally ending this nightmare of abuse and ensuring that all classrooms are safe for students, their teachers, and the entire school communities.”

“The tragedies associated with the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint are not only unacceptable, they are unconscionable,” said Dodd.  “There is no place in our schools for what amounts to torture, and we need clear standards for the use of tactics that lead to the physical and psychological abuse of children.  This legislation will set clear guidelines so that children and educators alike can be sure of a safe learning environment.” 

Restraint is used to restrict an individual’s freedom of movement. Seclusion is used to involuntarily confine a student in an area alone. Both practices are meant to be used only in situations of imminent danger. Among other things, the GAO found that restraint can become fatal when it restricts breathing, that many of the school staff who used these interventions in abusive ways had not been properly trained, and that these practices are often being used as a routine disciplinary tactic, rather than in response to an emergency.

In some of the cases GAO investigated, ropes, duct tape, chairs with straps and bungee cords were used to restrain or isolate young children.

Unlike in hospitals and other medical and community-based facilities that receive federal health funding, there are currently no federal laws addressing restraint and seclusion in schools. While the Children’s Health Act of 2000 regulates how and when restraint and seclusion can be used on children in these other settings, schools are not covered. State regulation and oversight varies greatly; many states provide no guidance or assistance regarding these behavioral interventions.

The Preventing Harmful Restraint and Seclusion in Schools Act (H.R. 4247) would establish the first federal standards to protect students from misuse of restraint and seclusion and ensure the safety of everyone in the classroom. It would apply to public schools, private schools and preschools receiving federal education support. Specifically the legislation would: 
  • Establish important minimum federal safety standards in schools, similar to the protections already in place in hospitals and other non-medical community based facilities;
  • Limit physical restraint and locked seclusion, allowing these interventions only when there is imminent danger of injury, and only when imposed by trained staff;
  • Outlaw mechanical restraints, such as strapping kids to chairs, and prohibit restraints that restrict breathing;
  • Require schools to notify parents after incidents when restraint or seclusion was used;
  • Call on states, within two years of enactment, to establish their own policies, procedures, monitoring and enforcement systems to meet these minimum standards;
  • Encourage states to provide support and training to better protect students and prevent the need for emergency behavioral interventions; and
  • Increase transparency, oversight and enforcement tools to prevent future abuse.
 The Education and Labor Committee plans to mark up the bill early next year.


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