What It Will Take to Reduce Restraint and Seclusion in Wisconsin Schools

February 23, 2016
Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

Parents and disability rights advocates in Wisconsin joined recently to express concern about an alarming number of students being restrained or secluded in schools across the state. We share in their concern, as most readers will—including school staff.

At CPI, we train and consult with education professionals who are committed to providing safe and caring learning environments for students—even in dangerous situations.

We learn as much as we teach. We learn from school staff, who go to work every day to teach and support our children—not to restrain them.

We often see that while their professional qualifications prepare them for their roles as educators, they frequently feel ill-equipped to respond effectively to a multitude of student behavioral challenges.

College courses don’t teach educators how to respond to being punched, kicked, or bitten—or what to do when they’re faced with fights or a student’s self-injurious behaviors. Educators study how to help students learn and succeed. That is what they are dedicated to and where their hearts are.

As with any group, there are always exceptions. However, as we consider this critical issue and the needs of our children, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the needs of those we entrust our kids to.

In 2012, Wisconsin enacted a law governing the use of seclusion and restraint in schools. Act 125 requires that these practices be used only as emergency interventions and only as a last resort when other attempts to de-escalate a behavior do not mitigate its risk. The law encourages school officials to consider using less-restrictive approaches, and it includes requirements for staff training.

Recently, Disability Rights Wisconsin, in conjunction with Wisconsin Family Ties and Wisconsin FACETS, released a report looking at the incidence of physical restraint and seclusion in Wisconsin schools over the last few years. The report also highlights suggestions to improve upon Act 125.

One suggestion points out the irony of the legislation itself. The law requires that staff who might need to use restrictive interventions be trained in physical restraint procedures.

What’s ironic is that the communication skills that are necessary to prevent and intervene verbally—before, during, and after crisis situations—have proven to be as, if not more critical, in reducing the frequency and the risks associated with physical restraint.

Without specialized training, school staff are left to rely on that fight-or-flight, primal instinct we all have when facing potential danger. This can lead to reactions that override best intentions to provide care and safety.

These are complex situations that require staff to rationally assess risks in stressful moments, and to safely respond to minimize those risks. It is crucial that school staff have opportunities to explore the behavioral circumstances they may encounter—within a training environment—so they can learn and develop a rational response that takes the place of a fear reaction. While physical intervention procedures to reduce risks may be necessary at times, practicing strategies to prevent and de-escalate must also be part of that training.

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Unfortunately, across the nation, we hear more and more about cuts that reduce the time and frequency of training for school staff. Regulatory requirements often magnify the significance of managing physical risks through physical intervention, so that becomes the priority.

As we advocate for vulnerable students who may be restrained at school, we must also advocate for more commitment to school staff training and we must convey that the intent of Wisconsin Act 125 was to improve practice—not to provide staff with the minimum of skills possible.

The report also touches on a related issue that has gained national attention.

When staff do not feel confident in their abilities to respond to disruptive behavior, they may rely on school resource officers, or local police to intervene.

Police tactics are generally more aggressive than strategies taught to staff in schools. Further, police rarely receive training in strategies like those that school staff learn. In this way, schools and police are often not on the same page. Additionally, police are not required to follow the same set of rules as school staff, so physical intervention can sometimes become the first resort, rather than the last resort.

The report provides a great opportunity for your school or your family to compare incidence numbers among districts.

I urge you to share your voice on this issue—and to join in our mission to make everyone in our schools safer.

Together as a community, we can ensure safety for all schools, students, and staff.

Read more about restraint reduction.

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