Don't Let Your School Face Restraint Lawsuits

November 4, 2015
Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

A South Carolina school resource officer forcibly removed a high school girl from her desk and arrested her when she was noncompliant. The sheriff’s deputy was fired because he “violated the agency’s training and procedural standards.”
Staff at a school near Syracuse, NY repeatedly held a boy with disabilities against a wall with a therapy mat, and repeatedly left him alone in a room while holding the door to prevent his exit. His parents are suing the district and the regional educational service agency. A hearing officer determined that the staff violated the boy’s civil rights by not complying with federal and state law and by improperly using restraint and seclusion.
In California, staff restrained a student with disabilities 57 times over one school year. One face-down floor restraint lasted 57 minutes. Another restraint lasted 63 minutes—40 minutes in prone position on the floor. The lawsuit cites failure of staff to comply with procedures and policies—both during and after the “behavioral emergency.” 
A respected Kentucky sheriff’s deputy is sued following charges that he handcuffed a 9-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl for behavior associated with their ADHD and other disabilities. The lawsuit claims violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act, and seeks changes to policies and additional training for officers.
These are among many similar news reports in the past few months alone. Data from the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights suggests that such events are not new—nor are they isolated incidents.
Such reports raise questions for the empathic educator: 

  • What is the philosophical perspective that’s guiding such decisions? 
  • What precipitating factors contributed to staff’s decision-making? 
  • How was staff’s behavior influenced by the Integrated Experience phenomenon? 
  • Were less restrictive interventions used first—and if not, why not?

We may never know the answers to these questions. For most of us, we cannot begin to comprehend finding ourselves in such situations. 
While we may not be able to understand the intervention choices made by these staff members, the questions they raise can serve a valuable purpose. They highlight the importance of having clear organizational policies and procedures regarding behavioral interventions—especially regarding the use of restraint and seclusion. 
Clear policies, however, are not sufficient.

When assessing how your staff handle situations, more questions to consider include: 

  • Do staff understand what your policy says about acceptable crisis intervention practices? 
  • How—and how often—are staff reminded of the guidelines? 
  • Do you have an effective training plan in place? 
  • Are effective positive interventions and supports in place to help minimize and avoid behavioral emergencies? 
  • Are staff trained in prevention strategies such as verbal de-escalation?
  • Are staff trained in acceptable intervention strategies?
  • Are staff trained in the appropriate, safe application of restraint—and are they trained to use restraint only as a last resort? 
  • Does your school follow through on your post-crisis responsibilities? 
  • Is compliance with the policies monitored and enforced?

Here are three ways to foster positive, appropriate crisis behavior interventions in your school: 

  • Develop and disseminate clear policies and procedural guidelines.
  • Give staff an understanding of crisis behavior and effective prevention and intervention tools.
  • Support students and staff in an environment committed to providing the best Care, Welfare, Safety, and Security℠ for all. 

CPI provides evidence-based tools for crisis prevention and intervention, and a vehicle for training staff in their use. Risk assessment and decision-making models guide staff in how to respond, helping them select the right tool for the situation and use it in the appropriate manner. 
So, upon reflection, how does your school measure up? It’s not too late to do a check-up, and to make improvements where needed.
Can we make our schools better places for all kids? Can we help ensure that all students will be treated with respect and dignity—even when someone thinks they might not deserve it?
Who knows? But in the process, you might help your school avoid one day being the subject of a news story similar to those above.
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