By James V. Major
It is a precarious line that teachers and staff walk when students erupt into emotional and physical outbursts, kicking, biting or punching fellow students or teachers. It might seem that children should never be physically restrained in school. But, when all other interventions have failed, how do we deter a child from running into traffic, break up a fight between 18-year-olds or stop a teenager in an acute psychotic episode from committing suicide?
The use of restraints in schools has not been without reason. There are times when emotionally, behaviorally and medically challenged students need to be prevented from hurting themselves, classmates and teachers. School professionals should continue to embrace positive behavior management tools, but they should also be highly trained and skilled in using safe restraint techniques when dangerous situations arise.
Given recent events, the public is right to be concerned about the use of physical restraints in schools. School administrators must provide the proper training and support to staff so it is understood that restraints must never be used as punishment and are not therapeutic. Restraints can only be used as a last resort to protect students and staff — after all other interventions have failed.
This month, new state regulations go into effect that govern the use of physical restraint and seclusion in all publicly funded schools and group care facilities in Massachusetts. The new state regulations, which limit the use of physical restraints, are the result of last year’s extensive debate by advocates, school personnel and parents across the state. While both public and private schools have invested a great deal of time and energy in preparing to comply with the regulations, the real focus of our work should be, and has been, on the prevention and elimination of the need for physical restraints in the first place.
Children in our schools and group homes deserve the very best that we have to offer in their education and therapeutic treatment. For 25 years, I have watched extraordinarily skilled teachers bring students with special needs to new heights and promote their many abilities. Our highly trained educators and therapists are at their best when they build on the strengths of each student. They teach students positive behaviors and effective coping strategies to manage the stresses and frustrations in their daily lives. We must also take the time to understand and respond to the unfortunate trauma and adverse childhood experiences to which far too many of our children are subjected. In this way, we help students and all children grow into the positive, well-adjusted adults whom our society needs to make Massachusetts a true commonwealth for all.
For the past 15 years, Massachusetts has prohibited the use of seclusion, and physical restraints have been permitted only when all other behavioral support and deescalation techniques have failed and the health and safety of the child and others are at imminent risk. The new restraint regulations provide additional restrictions on the use of face-down prone restraints. They also require educators and therapists to collect and study data on incidents of restraint, so that we can learn how to prevent and reduce their occurrence.
We support all efforts to reduce and prevent restraints. We proposed regulations to require medical and psychological screening of children for any contraindications for the use of prone restraint. Since 2009, we have also been involved in the state’s Restraint and Seclusion Prevention Initiative Steering Committee, a critical resource for our member schools’ efforts to prevent restraint and seclusion. We have also provided more than a dozen workshops and conferences to our member school staff and clinicians to adequately prepare for the new regulations.
There will likely be added costs to public, charter and private special education schools as we all adopt these new policies and increase staff and oversight to manage them properly. But every advancement in the education of our students is worth the investment.
And this collective focus must continue. Many of our students have experienced obstacles and disappointments in their lives. We want to help unlock the potential that exists in each child to become a self-sufficient, accomplished adult. The new restraint regulations challenge public and private schools serving publicly funded students — and the entire commonwealth — to create and sustain classrooms that enable all children to discover and develop their true potential and to succeed.
James V. Major is executive director of the Massachusetts Association of 766 Approved Private Schools (known as maaps), which represents more than 80 private special education schools that have been approved under Chapter 766 of the state’s education law and serve 7,000 students with special needs across the commonwealth.