Districts underreporting use of restraint and seclusion

Districts underreporting use of restraint and seclusion

(District of Columbia) School districts throughout the country are likely reporting far fewer occurrences of restraint and seclusion than have been happening, according to a new study, which found even some of the largest districts reported no instances.

Analysis of the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) conducted by the federal Government Accountability Office shows 70 percent of school districts reported zero incidents of restraint and seclusion for the 2015-2016 school year—a finding researchers said was highly unlikely given past trends.

Indeed, researchers noted that they found that not all incidents were reported, and nine districts with more than 100,000 students reported in error that none had occurred.

“Our analyses raise questions about whether the confirmed instances of misreported zeros to the CRDC are indicative of a more pervasive pattern of underreporting of restraint and seclusion in U.S. public schools,” authors of the report wrote. “A fundamental first step toward improving the quality of the restraint and seclusion data is to assure that when school districts report zero incidents it truly means there were no incidents, and to accurately distinguish districts with no incidents from districts that do not track or collect the data.”

Restraint is defined as restricting a student’s ability to move their torso, arms, legs or head freely, and seclusion as confinement alone to an area they can't leave. Such tactics are typically used on children with behavioral disorders or other special needs who may act out aggressively or even violently at times.

In 2012, the Education Department released guidance urging states to consider alternatives to restraint and seclusion, and declaring that no such methods should be used as a means for discipline, retaliation, convenience or coercion.

Lawmakers in states including Kansas, Connecticut and Ohio, among others, have sought to address the misuse of restraint and seclusion in recent since the federal guidance was issued.

Alaska policymakers passed a bill clarifying vague state language that allowed school staff to use “reasonable and necessary” physical restraint in emergencies but also required that staff be trained to safely employ the tactics. California now limits the use of seclusion and restraint to only situations where student behavior presents an imminent danger of physical harm either to themselves or others.

And in Texas, policy revisions allow for the instillation of surveillance cameras in special education classrooms mandatory if requested by parents or staff. The change was inspired by a parent who filed a lawsuit against the Keller Independent School District in 2010 alleging that her son’s teacher assaulted him on multiple occasions between 2008 and 2010, resulting in broken bones, cuts and other injuries. The parent had previously asked the school to install cameras in her son’s classroom, but district officials reportedly told her there was no evidence of wrongdoing.

For the most recent Civil Rights Data Collection—the 2015-16 school year—districts were to report zeros only to indicate that there were no incidents of restraint or seclusion, researchers said. If data were unavailable, they were to leave the fields blank and submit an action plan to explain how they would collect the data in the future.

In 39 states and the District of Columbia, more than half of districts reported zero incidents; and in 12 states, 80 percent or more of the districts reported zero incidents, according to the new study. Of the more than 17,000 school districts in the U.S., 70 percent reported zero incidents of restraint and zero incidents of seclusion.

They also noted that only one of the 10 districts with more than 100,000 enrolled students that reported zero incidents—the Hawaii Department of Education—reported to the U.S. Education Department that the zeros actually represented zero incidents. The other nine districts reported zero incidents but had incidents they did not report, had incidents they were unable to report, or were not collecting the data, researchers found.

For instance, Fairfax County Public Schools in Northern Virginia was found to be one of the larger districts reporting zero incidents for years, but it actually had 1,700 incidents in the 2017-18 school year alone, according to an investigation by WAMU, an NPR affiliate.

Other large districts that reported no instances of either restraint or seclusion in the 2015-16 school year included New York City Public Schools, Florida’s Dade schools and Broward schools, and Philadelphia City School District.

Researchers said that while it is difficult to know the full extent of underreporting of restraint and seclusion, the findings call into question the data showing zero incidents.

To ensure the data collected is correct, authors of the report recommended that the Assistant Secretary for the Office for Civil Rights follow up with districts already reporting zero incidents as part of the 2017-18 Civil Rights Data Collection quality assurance process.

They also called for reminders and additional clarification be provided to school districts that reporting zero incidents is only acceptable if there are no incidents, as well as instructions on when to input zeros or leave cells blank.

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