ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A law that went into effect last week establishes, for the first time, statewide standards for the use of physical restraint and seclusion on students in Alaska public schools.
Before House Bill 210, which Gov. Sean Parnell signed into law in July, became effective Oct. 14, Alaska statutes were vague, allowing teachers and other staff members to use “reasonable and necessary” physical restraint in emergencies but offering no details on what was permitted and what was not. In practice, that meant individual school districts were left to formulate their own policies on restraint and seclusion — or operate without one at all, said Don Enoch, the state’s special education administrator.
In Alaska and nationally, physical restraint “holds” and seclusion in “safe rooms” have been used on students whose behaviors are violent or out of control and disruptive. Often those students have documented disabilities that cause or contribute to the behavior.
After a report that accused the Anchorage School District of overusing restraint and seclusion was released last fall, some parents pushed for more regulation.
“The new law is a big deal,” said Ashley Dunks, a mother of three who says her son, who has autism, was secluded against her wishes at an Anchorage elementary school.
She started the Facebook group Ban Seclusion Rooms in Alaska and collaborated with Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, who introduced the bill. Dunks testified at legislative hearings held in the spring.
“I told them what had happened to my son,” she said. “I let (the legislators) know that this is happening in schools.”
The new law defines terms like “seclusion” and “restraint” and bars methods such as sedating any student with drugs or placing them in restraint chairs or in positions where the child’s airway might be compromised. It also requires that staff members be trained in safe restraint techniques and mandates that parents be told after an incident where a child is restrained or secluded. Schools will have to report data on seclusion and restraint incidents to the state for the first time.
“What it does is set some standards,” said Ron Cowan, an investigator with the Alaska Disability Law Center. “We really had nothing that was enforceable up to this point.”
Last year, a report by the Anchorage-based Disability Law Center charged that the Anchorage School District was restraining and secluding students far too often at Mt. Iliamna Elementary, a school for children with serious behavioral or emotional problems.
Much of the new policy mirrors rules the Anchorage School District already had in place, wrote assistant superintendent Linda Carlson, who oversees special education, in an email.
“However, as a result of some of the language in the new laws, our School Board policy on restraint and seclusion is being revised so that it is much more detailed in nature and we are having to examine ways to collect data around restraint and seclusion incidents,” she wrote.
Many other school districts collected no data at all, said Cowan.
Without statewide data, it’s hard to know how often Alaska schools are restraining or secluding students.
National data shows the practice is widespread: An analysis by NPR and ProPublica found at least 267,000 restraint and seclusion incidents nationwide. About 75 percent of the time, children with disabilities were the ones being restrained or secluded.
Alaska is among a rush of states that have moved to regulate or ban seclusion and restraint in recent years. Federal standards might be on the way, too.
In February, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., introduced bills in Congress that would set minimum standards for the use of restraint and seclusion.
The attention comes in response to high-profile incidents in other states where children died or were hurt being restrained at school, Cowan said. Districts will work with the state to make sure their policies on restraint and seclusion comply with the new law, said Enoch, the state special education administrator.
“We’re happy about this,” he said. “It’s better to have some guidelines come into place than have something terrible happen because of no guidance.”