NEW JERSEY — Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced Wednesday that New Jersey has joined a coalition of states calling on Congress to pass a bill that would protect school children by banning the use of such tactics as physical restraint and seclusion when educators are disciplining students or seeking to assist those in crisis.
In a letter to leaders of both the Senate and House of Representatives, Attorney General Grewal and 16 other coalition Attorneys General assert that the bill, called the Keeping All Students Safe Act (KASSA), is vital to protecting children at a time when the use of physical restraint and seclusion in the nation’s schools is “widespread and increasing.”
Under KASSA, certain restraint techniques could be used on a limited basis in situations where a student’s behavior poses an immediate threat of serious physical harm to the student or others.Otherwise, the bill would make it illegal for any elementary or secondary school receiving federal funds to use mechanical, chemical, and supine restraint, as well as any practices that restrict breathing, including prone restraint. The bill would also ban the practice of confining students in an empty room, known in education as seclusion or “isolated confinement.”
“This law contains important safeguards that will protect children from the use of inappropriate and often unsafe disciplinary and behavior-control measures,” Grewal said. “Parents should never have to worry that their children might be physically held down, isolated in a locked, empty room for an extended period of time, or otherwise subjected to tactics that could endanger their physical or psychological well-being during the school day.”
The letter notes that although restraint and seclusion are intended to be safety measures of last resort, both approaches are often used in the absence of imminent threat to “punish or discipline students, compel compliance or retaliate for non-compliance, or for convenience of staff.” Such “inherently dangerous” tactics have no therapeutic or educational value, can be emotionally traumatizing, and may even be life-threatening to students. Because the safety of children is at issue, and because the rules governing such a critical area of education vary widely from state-to-state, the Attorneys General in the coalition support the adoption of federal standards.
“We look forward to working with the U.S. Department of Education and schools throughout the state as we ensure the safety of all students in all schools,” said Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan, Acting Commissioner of Education. “Whether it’s through initiatives such as restorative-justice programs or social/emotional learning, schools in New Jersey have continually sought to provide students with a safe and secure learning environment, and we know our schools will continue to make this a priority moving forward.”
The coalition letter to Congress argues there is no evidence that imposing physical restraint or seclusion on students is effective in modifying or reducing incidents of disruptive behavior. To the contrary, “the evidence is clear that seclusion and restraint can escalate negative behaviors by increasing children’s arousal, deepening negative behavior patterns, and undermining children’s trust and capacity for learning.”
Children have been subjected to seclusion for such comparatively minor infractions as “spilling milk, refusing to do classwork, swearing or throwing Legos.” And concerning stories have surfaced about children being restrained in ways that restrict their breathing or cause other forms of physical harm.
The letter also conveys the coalition’s concern about the disproportionate application of physical restraint and seclusion among students with disabilities and students of color. Statistics reported by the U.S. Department of Education show that, for the 2017-2018 school year, students with disabilities comprised 80 percent of students subjected to physical restraint and 77 percent of students subjected to seclusion – despite students with disabilities making up only 13 percent of the total enrolled student population.
Likewise, a recent academic analysis of 2015-2016 federal data concluded that Black students were nearly 200 percent more likely to experience restraint or seclusion than their white counterparts, while Hispanic students were 45 percent more likely to experience restraint or seclusion than white students.
New Jersey law already imposes similar limits on the use of physical restraints and seclusion in schools for students with disabilities. KASSA’s broader restrictions on the use of these tactics for all students is consistent with New Jersey’s commitment to eliminating discrimination in education.
KASSA would also require states to monitor the law’s implementation by collecting and analyzing data, creating policies and procedures to ensure compliance, and “improving school climate and culture by implementing positive behavior interventions and supports.” KASSA authorizes three-year federal grant funding to assist states with the implementation.
The bill also empowers the federal government to withhold education funding from school systems that violate KASSA.