Schools physically restrained students 9,000 times last year
BOSTON (AP) — Public school officials in Massachusetts say they had to physically restrain students more than 9,000 times last school year, sparking outcry from some advocates who say the practice is dangerous and overused.
Districts were required to report cases to the state for the first time last year as part of new rules meant to curb the practice. Massachusetts education officials released the data this week in response to a public records request from The Associated Press.
Among the 9,070 cases reported in the 2016-17 academic year, 244 resulted in injuries to students or staff, according to the data. And while most schools said they used physical restraint five times or fewer, some logged more than 200.
Massachusetts education officials said they discourage comparisons between schools because of differences in the programs they offer and the students they serve.
“The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education continues to discuss with schools the need to carefully monitor, report and reduce the use of restraints,” the department said.
Leaders of the Disability Law Center, a Massachusetts advocacy group, said the numbers of cases and injuries are “extremely disturbing.”
Rules on restraint vary from state to state, and the federal government doesn’t closely track the practice. The U.S. Education Department estimates physical restraint was used 22,000 times in public schools in the 2013-14 school year, its latest numbers, but advocates say it is widely underreported.
Massachusetts state law forbids physical restraint in public schools except in emergencies, saying it can be used only as a last resort and if a student’s behavior poses an immediate threat.
Rules that took effect in 2016 outlaw restraining devices, such as straps or belts, along with seclusion, the practice of confining students alone until they calm down. But the rules allow a variety of physical holds ranging from a bear hug to a restraint that’s used to pin a student face-down on the ground and has been blamed for asphyxiation deaths at some U.S. schools.
Records released by Massachusetts include only broad details about the number of cases and don’t disclose the types of restraint that were used or the severity of any injuries. Statewide, the number of restraint cases amounted to one for every 105 students, the data show, but in some schools it was far more common.
At the John J. Doran Community School, an elementary school in the Fall River district, students were restrained 253 times, leading to 19 injuries, the highest numbers in the state. More than three-quarters of the school’s 500 students come from low-income families, and nearly one-fourth have a disability, according to separate state data.
The school’s principal, Eric Bradley, declined to comment.
A group representing 42 schools listed in the data is asking the state to release more information for context, including the age of students and the type of restraint used. The group, known as the Massachusetts Association of 766 Approved Private Schools, represents private programs that receive public funding to serve students with disabilities.
“We need more and better data,” said Jim Major, the group’s executive director. “Without that information you really don’t begin to understand what the data means.”
Students with disabilities have been found to face restraint at higher rates than their peers, which some advocates say amounts to discrimination. The U.S. Education Department reported in 2016 that students with disabilities made up 12 percent of all students enrolled at public schools, but 67 percent of those subjected to restraint or seclusion.
In Massachusetts, schools that frequently used restraint had varying populations of students with disabilities.
At the William R. Peck School in Holyoke, which reported 180 restraint cases, nearly a third of the students have disabilities, well above the statewide total of 17 percent. By contrast, the Mary Fonseca Elementary School in Fall River, which logged 244 cases, reports that 12 percent of its students have disabilities.
The state’s data don’t include details about students who were restrained, including their race, age or if they have a disability.
Christine Griffin, executive director of the Disability Law Center, said the numbers suggest schools aren’t using restraint as a last resort for students with or without disabilities. Her group will use the data to guide its future investigations into possible abuse, she said.
Follow Collin Binkley on Twitter at @cbinkley