A bill that would require school districts to adopt policies on when it’s appropriate for teachers to restrain a student or seclude them in a room was introduced Tuesday, but received pushback from prominent education organizations.
Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, presented Senate Bill 2275, which would require districts adopt policies on restraint and seclusion by July 1, 2018, to the Senate Education Committee.
“In a two-year span in the state of North Dakota, over 900 students have either been secluded or restrained, and that’s (just) the reported number of incidents,” said Heckaman, the Senate minority leader.
It would also give $500,000 to jumpstart annual training for district personnel on the proper use of restraint and seclusion, according to district policy.
Definitions of restraint and seclusion vary widely across the state, and schools are not required by the state to document how often these methods are used nor do they report to the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.
The only data on restraint and seclusion is through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which has been collecting data from school districts since 2011.
The department’s Civil Rights Data Collection defines restraint of a student meaning to restrict students’ ability to move their torso, arms, legs or head freely, and seclusion of student means the involuntary confinement of a student alone in a room or area that they are not permitted to leave.
Most cases of restraint and seclusion are students with disabilities, according to data from the Education Department.
In 2007, the North Dakota Protection and Advocacy Project, commonly referred to as P&A, began tracking the number of times restraint and seclusion was used on students with disabilities in public schools.
There were three reported cases in 2007. Last year, P&A received 22 reports of restraint and seclusion being used on students with disabilities.
P&A, an independent state agency charged with overseeing the rights of North Dakota residents with disabilities, has been pushing for schools to adopt guidelines on when it’s appropriate to use restraint and seclusion. Disability advocates say shutting a student in a room or physically restraining them could cause undue harm to vulnerable students.
“This bill creates a degree of uniformity with definitions and minimum standards so that there is a degree of consistency in the state,” Cody Wagner, an advocate for P&A, told the committee. “This, coupled with consistent reporting, will result in a better understanding of what is occurring in our schools regarding this issue.”
The interim education committee, however, did not come forward with a bill draft on restraint and seclusion.
On Tuesday, representatives from the North Dakota School Boards Association and the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders told lawmakers their organizations opposed the bill, which they said was repetitive and unnecessary.
Anita Thomas, general counsel for the NDSBA, said at the hearing a recent survey administered by the association showed that 112 of 170 districts have a restraint and seclusion policy in place.
Thomas also pointed out that school districts are already mandated to send information on restraint and seclusion to the federal government.
Heckaman told the committee a number of schools have already trained teachers to diffuse situations with unruly students before having to seclude or restrain. She pointed out that $500,000 would not be enough to train the rest of the teachers, but it would be a good starting point.
Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, said she supports the idea that all districts should have a policy in place as “the bare minimum.”
“I think we do have to tell every school district they do need to have a policy,” Oban said after the bill’s hearing. “If there’s a problem that’s risen to the level that it’s coming to the Legislature, there needs to be some consideration to those issues.”
Oban said she also understands the concerns of teachers. This past weekend, she spoke with more than a dozen preschool and high school teachers who told her their main concerns were over the clarity of restraint and seclusion and whether they’re protected in these incidents.
“They want to know that they are not doing anything inappropriate by removing a kid from a classroom if they need some time to cool down,” said Oban, who was a middle school teacher for four years. “And certainly, that was my experience while teaching, too.”
Oban said she’s not sure whether the bill would pass with the current fiscal note — $500,000 from the Foundation Aid Stabilization Fund — and whether the state could mandate training.
The committee did not take action on the bill Tuesday.