Students with disabilities are restrained and secluded in Wisconsin's public schools at an alarming rate, despite a 2011 law intended to curb the practices, according to a report released Tuesday by three disability-rights groups.
By Journal Sentinel | Feb 9, 2016of the
They are calling on legislators to strengthen the law on a number of fronts, from requiring the state Department of Public Instruction to collect data on incidents to expanding it to cover police officers working in schools.
"We know that these incidents can be traumatic for children," said Sally Flaschberger, an advocacy specialist with Madison-based Disability Rights Wisconsin, which issued the report along with Wisconsin Family Ties and Wisconsin Facets.
"Overall, the goal is to be doing de-escalation for these students...And we think school districts can be looking at their data and talking about how they can reduce the use of these techniques," she said.
According to the report, nearly 3,600 students in 381 districts, 80% of them with disabilities, were restrained or isolated for disruptive or "challenging" behaviors in public schools across the state in 2013-'14, the most recent data available.
In all, it says, there were more than 20,000 incidents, although advocates could not say for certain that some incidents weren't counted twice, because of inconsistencies in district reporting methods. Of the districts that provided information, the report says, 43 reported more than 100 incidents, six reported more than 500.
Wisconsin lawmakers passed Act 125 in 2011 limiting when school employees can physically restrain students or isolate them in rooms away from their classmates, in response to a 2009 report by the disability-rights groups.
The law banned some restraints altogether, including mechanical and chemical restraints; allowed the techniques only when it is necessary to ensure safety; and required schools to report incidents to their school boards annually.
Disability advocates called it a good first step but say problems persist, including inconsistent reporting and lack of a statewide database that would allow parents and advocates to monitor districts' progress.
According to the report:
■ Families continue to report instances in which children are being secluded and restrained repeatedly, sometimes daily across a span of time.
■ Parents report lapses in notification and are not made aware that written reports are available.
■ Incidents involving police officers, who are not covered under the law, appear to be on the rise.
■ Elementary school students and students with disabilities are disproportionally restrained and secluded. Families are being urged to consent to the practice on their disabled students' individualized education plan documents, "thereby increasing the likelihood that the techniques will be used again," according to the report.
"The practices can have a devastating effect on children," said Amy Puccio of Madison, who moved her son from the school he had attended since 4-year-old kindergarten after she said he was repeatedly restrained and secluded at the beginning of the school year.
"In a span of 16 days, he was secluded or restrained 31 times," said Puccio, whose son has been diagnosed with attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder and anxiety disorder and is considered to be on the autism spectrum.
"Most of the time, they did not reach out to me. He spent 21/2 hours in the seclusion room the one day," she said. By the time she arrived, she said, "he had been screaming for almost two hours straight. He was exhausted. When I got there, he was laying on the floor in an empty room. He had lost his voice."
The disability advocates are asking lawmakers to revisit the law to require districts to report incidents to the state Department of Public Instruction.
The groups are also asking the state to eliminate the state statute that requires inclusion of seclusion and restraint in individualized education plans created for disabled students and to expand the law to cover incidents in private schools that accept students through state-funded voucher programs.
The report offers an incomplete and sometimes unclear picture of the scope of the problem. The data were collected through open records requests to 450 individual districts. However, 40 did not respond and 29 of those that did refused to provide information citing confidentiality concerns.
The report also does not include enrollment data for the 2013-'14 school year, so a per capita analysis of incidents is not possible.
The shortcomings in the data, disability rights advocates say, only reinforce the need for the state to collect and maintain the data in a consistent format.