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Student Restraint Use High in Lowell, Billerica Schools

November 11, 2018

Last year, schools in Lowell, Billerica and Fitchburg saw the highest number of students restrained by staff among public school districts in northern Middlesex and Worcester counties, according to state education data released in September.

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education disclosed the findings in its second year of collecting data on the controversial restraint practice.

“Restraint occurs if a student is a danger to themselves or others,” said University of New Hampshire Associate Professor Vincent Connelly, who has co-authored papers studying the subject. “It’s usually a temporary thing. It’s usually a last resort.”

In January 2016, the state began requiring school districts to collect and file annual restraint data with DESE. The new law was prompted by state agencies and advocacy groups seeking to reduce the frequency of the restraint practice, which, according to DESE, has “clear evidence documenting both the risk of injury and the emotional toll that restraint has on children as well as with staff.

Local reports

State data for 2017-18 school year show that among the region’s most frequent users of the restraint practice are three schools run by Lowell Public Schools: Leblanc Therapeutic Day School, Laura Lee Therapeutic Day School and the Lowell Day School on Broadway. Each school, which caters to students with special needs, saw staff perform restraints on between 22 percent and 30 percent of its population.

According to DESE, the programs enrolled a total of between 23 and 36 students in the 2017-18 school year.

At the Vining Elementary School in Billerica, a smaller portion of the overall student population was restrained -- just shy of 4 percent -- but the total number of restraints performed at the school topped any other school in the region.

Last school year, seven students were restrained a total of 195 times, the fourth highest amount of any public school in the state, according to DESE. In the region, only the Lowell Day School on Broadway -- which has since moved to Chelmsford and changed names to Dr. Janice Adie Day School -- came close, reporting 167 restraints between seven students.

The state cautions against directly comparing restraints data for schools, arguing the type of school, length of reporting period, age range and health and safety needs of students can vary dramatically.

Staff at Reingold Elementary School in Fitchburg, which serves 665 students, restrained 19 students a collective total of 97 times. Together these students make up slightly less than 3 percent of the student population.

Hajjar Elementary School in Billerica reported restraining just over one percent of the student population a total of 52 times.

Lowell’s Pawtucketville Memorial High School, Murkland Elementary School and Butler Middle School reported restraining between one and two percent of students. Wang Middle School, also in Lowell, reported slightly lower rates of restraint, just shy of 1 percent.

Injuries to staff or students during the restraints were not reported at any of the schools except Butler Middle School, which indicated between one and five injuries. Due to reporting restrictions, the exact number is unclear.

Statewide reporting

Statewide, there were 4,889 students restrained a total of 38,994 times last school year. This represents almost 3,000 fewer restraints from the 2016-17 school year, the first year data was collected, though the number of students restrained increased by about 11 percent year over year.

The difference from the first year of reporting to the second is difficult to track at individual schools, because only schools that report restraining six or more students that year are required to report exact figures to DESE. Schools that do not meet the reporting threshhold are listed by DESE as having at least one restraint.

Jacqueline Reis, a spokeswoman for DESE said the first year of reporting also had some inaccuracies as school administrators adjusted to how and what to report to the state.

These caveats aside, locally, the number of restraints rose in some schools during the second year of reporting and decreased at others.

In the region, only Reingold Elementary School reported six or more restraints both the first and second year. In the 2016/17 school year, Reingold reported six students were restrained nine times, less than the most recent year.

Lunenburg Public Schools had two schools with six or more restraints the first year -- Lunenburg Primary School and Turkey Hill Elementary School -- but did not make the most recent list.

According to the state, Billerica Public Schools did not report any restraints for the 2016-17 school year. However, data sent by Billerica Superintendent Tim Piwowar to the district’s school committee in early October indicated the number of restraints at Vining Elementary School in the first year of reporting was more than double the second year of reporting.

What is a restraint?

Through his study of restraints, Connelly said the general wish is to reduce this practice, however, “they’re going to happen on occasion.”

He said, “The red flag would be small number of students, large number of restraints. Even within a specialized program it can become problematic too.”

If the same students are being restrained over and over, it means the underlying issue is going unresolved, Connolly said.

According to Connelly, nationwide “restraint” can refer to a number of techniques. It can involve the full body, like a prone restraint, which has been linked to suffocation. The prone restraint is banned in Massachusetts except in specific situations, depending on the student’s behavioral and medical history. Parents or guardians must also give consent in advanced of the employment of this type of restraint, according to the new law.

In other cases, Connelly said a “hand over hand” restraint is used.

“If they’re hitting their head with their hand, holding their hand could be a restraint,” he said.

In Fitchburg, district Director of Pupil Personnel Services Roann Demanche said the staff only uses standing restraints, which can be blocking a child’s hand or holding them by the armpits.

Administrators respond

Restraints and special education programs are often closely linked. Schools with high numbers of restraints tend to be those that serve students with special needs, a trend which has caused outcry among groups like the Disability Law Center.

“While DLC understands some student populations, due to disabilities, are prone to repeated self-injurious and/or aggressive behaviors this does not negate the schools’ responsibility to only use restraint as a matter of last resort and does not minimize its obligation to work diligently to find less intrusive and less dangerous interventions,” according to a release from the group published in February.

The trend appears to be taking hold locally.

In addition to the day schools in Lowell, which cater to students with special needs, several of the region’s traditional education schools with high numbers of restraints are employing special programs.

Vining Elementary School has the LAB program for students with additional emotional and behavioral needs. Reingold Elementary School has a special program, though Demanche declined to describe the focus saying it would identify student’s disabilities.

Jeannine Durkin, Lowell’s acting superintendent of schools, said a similar trend exists in the district. She listed a number of sub-separate programs being offered, though did not identify where each was located.

“Students within these programs may need/receive additional support to help regulate themselves physically and emotionally,” she wrote in an email. They’re more likely to have a history of trauma or involvement with government services like the Department of Children and Families, she wrote.

These backgrounds or disabilities can “limit (the students’) ability to regulate and/or understand their feelings and/or how to express their emotions/frustrations/wants verbally, and this can also result in the need for non-violent physical crisis intervention and verbal de-escalation techniques to help support the student as well as keep everyone safe,” Durkin wrote in the email.

Because restraints are tied to the student’s difficulty regulating themselves, a majority of restraints happen in lower grade levels, according to Demanche.

At Reingold, the number of restraints was driven up by a handful of students who pushed open school doors, which are unlocked from the inside for fire safety, and ran out, she said.

According to Demanche, school staff view a slide show on physical restraint training provided by the state annually. If a student has ongoing behavioral issues, the district can develop a behavioral plan and work with the district’s three certified behavioral analysts.

Restraints only occur after other de-escalation tactics have failed, according to Demanche. She like other district administrators said restraints are a faculty member’s last choice.

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