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School officials debate restraint

By Staff | Oct 4, 2008

State education officials and child advocates continue to debate over a rule change that expands the use of “reasonable force” in schools weeks after the Florida Department of Education stalled the issue.

The proposal was on this month’s State Board of Education agenda, but was pulled at the last minute. A statement from the DOE explained that “the department withdrew the proposed language to allow further consideration of public comments received.” It could resurface later this year or in 2009, they added.

The definition of reasonable force would’ve been an “appropriate physical response” to maintain a safe learning environment and, according to the rule change, would only be used in emergency situations where a student may injure themselves or another.

While the DOE currently has guidelines related to physical restraints in special education classrooms, the proposed rule change would have broadened the definition of reasonable force.

Current guidelines recommend that school districts file a report and contact parents anytime a physical restraint is used in the classroom, but that is not a requirement. In fact, there is no state requirement for school districts to report the number of physical restraints used in special education classrooms.

This week the Lee County School District couldn’t provide the Daily Breeze with the amount of restraints administered during the 2007-2008 school year.

The request for information was first made Wednesday morning.

“I don’t have a definite time as to when I can get the answers,” said Donzelli.

Donzelli said that the school district follows all current Florida laws and DOE rules.

“Lee County Public Schools follows all current Florida laws and DOE rules when it comes to the use of reasonable force,” said Donzelli.

Experts point out that restraints are precarious and can go awry even for the most seasoned and highly trained teacher. Peter Eastman, director of NAPPI International in Fort Myers, an expert on physical restraints, trains public employees in 28 different states. He said that it is easy for a restraint to go wrong.

“Restraints are so complicated and unpredictable that even someone highly skilled can be found outside of the box,” said Eastman. “They are difficult to apply and sometimes things go wrong.”

Eastman’s company is a direct competitor for Crisis Prevention Institute or CPI, the company that trains Lee County employees. His methods stress that if a restrainer is working “outside of the box” — meaning that the restraint scenario may cause injury or death — a staff member should let go and attempt another restraint.

In Georgia, for instance, staff members of a wilderness camp for troubled teens held an unruly boy down for over an hour. The boy later died because he was asthmatic and was denied access to his inhaler.

“He died not because technique was wrong, because a series of things got increasingly worse,” said Eastman.

Unfortunately, many special education classrooms sometimes don’t have enough staff to deal with the amount of students who exhibit severe behavioral outbursts.

“Teachers are often put in situations where they are in very difficult circumstances,” said Eastman. “Staffing requirements don’t always allow students to get one-on-one.”

The notion of “reasonable force” in the classroom recalls archaic customs of the past — instances of corporal punishment where a student is paddled or hit. But, physical restraints aren’t a punishment, instead they are used to protect students.

Some of the state’s 67 school districts continue to employ corporal punishment. During the 2006-2007 school year, the DOE reported that Holmes and Santa Rosa counties had approximately 400 instances of corporal punishment. The Lee County School District had none.

Eastman explained that the process of restraining a child is traumatic on both the teacher and student so a teacher should try some avoidance strategies — such as clapping or yelling to refocus the student's attention — before resorting to a physical restraint.

“It is traumatizing for everyone, especially when someone gets hurt,” said Eastman. “It damages relationships between the teacher and child.”

In many instances children who have severe behavioral outbursts come from a home where they have been abused, so having a teacher use a restraint could ignite the student’s trauma and force them into a frantic rage.

“The teacher has to respond to that, but the problem is when you put your hands on the child they may fight back,” said Eastman.

Many teachers are also injured during the process, he said. They receive broken noses, busted knees, serious back injuries as well as scraps and burns. And while teachers could sustain serious injuries from restraining a student, certain physical holds can also be fatal for a child.

“It is estimated around the country that of all the people in care of other people, in jails, psychiatric hospitals or schools, there are between 50 to 150 deaths a year because of restraints,” said Eastman.

Such deaths could result in positional asphyxiation, he said, or when a person stops breathing because of a hold, and by agitated delirium, where a person basically exhausts themselves to death. But Eastman explained there isn’t enough scientific evidence to support agitated delirium at this time.

An organization called the Florida Families Against Restraint and Seclusion opposed the rule change, stating that it fails to ban prone restraints, a type where a child is held face down. They also said that it not only gives too much discretion for a teacher to use force in an emergency situation, but is too vague in describing conditions that warrant a physical restraint.

On their Web site they listed 119 schools across the United States being investigated for overusing physical restraints in the classroom — information they compiled using media and personal accounts. Twenty-three of these schools were in Florida and six of those were from local schools in Cape Coral and Fort Myers.