Current Events: Restraint, Seclusion and Access

There have been many cases in the news involving the restraint, or physical intervention that limits movement, of students in crisis. These recent events highlight questionable police interventions and brings to light the pressing need for clarifying relationships, defining intervention procedures, and educating everyone involved with the goal of maintaining a safe environment for learning in our schools.
One story in particular, of a young man who was arrested and mistreated due to a misunderstanding around his autistic characteristics, was the subject of a post on, raising awareness around the need for police sensitivity training. Excessive force is often discussed when police officers are asked to intervene in the crisis of a student with complex communication needs, as was the case with a student with autism in Charlotte, N.C. But, many in the law enforcement community might argue a dereliction of their duties to protect others if the staff responsible for the student seemed unable to handle the crisis. Take a look at the discussion and comments on Police Mag for a better grasp of this argument, and a better idea of some of the challenges that we all face in educating the general public as to the needs of our students. Ideas that every individual with autism has as much control of their actions as someone without autistic characteristics, assumptions around parenting influences and a lack of discipline, not to mention a lack of understanding around positive behavior supports and tolerance all run rampant throughout these discussions.

Still other stories concerning excessive use of force in general continue to emerge, spurred on by access to video footage and witness activity on social media. A man in Pasco, Washington began throwing rocks at a two patrolman, and after a Taser failed to stop him, the officers fatally wounded him with gunfire, “the fourth fatal police shooting here in six months.”

It seems that while most would agree that police officers are put into near impossible situations on a regular basis, required to protect others by putting themselves at great personal risk, it seems that there is also a need for a greater emphasis on policing policies that encourage and promote the use of less invasive and harmful tactics, especially when the responsible parties understand that the person in crisis requires additional support to calm down or comprehend their options. In the school systems, including SROs or local police officers in the process of developing intervention plans, building sensitivity towards the atypical behaviors of a student and the positive supports that might help that student in a crisis, should be a serious consideration.

If you are interested in the history of recent legislation around seclusion and restraint, a search on Disability Scoop will bring you some good information: namely, how efforts to legislate against restraint and seclusion have come close to passing several times (most recently in the late part of 2014), but typically get tied up once considerations of school safety are in play. In other words, when everyone begins asking, “Well, if no one is allowed to restrain or seclude students, then how do we keep everyone safe?”, progress breaks down.

What I think is interesting is that these considerations fail to mentioned access as a major factor, and this is a problem for me. To me, this issue is all about student access to a free and public education. Access is the argument, in my mind, that supports keeping some form of seclusion and restraint in place.

Consider this: Without a variety of crisis intervention strategies in place, it is difficult to provide a safe school environment, which is where the conversation about these issues usually stops. However, under these conditions, if a public school student with a short temper has a couple of uncontrolled outbursts, there could be reasonable grounds for excluding that student from school, or at the very least, justification for an alternative placement. “Alternative placement sounds great!”, you say, and it certainly has the potential to be. That is if the alternative placement is simply adding the necessary supports for a student to succeed, but this is rarely the case. Typically, alternative placements cannot simply provide more supports and services, and the student has then been placed in an environment which restricts on their education opportunities.

“But they deserve a more restrictive environment”, you say, “They need to earn their way back to more educational opportunities!” While this may be true for some typically developing students, it is often not true for students with complex learning needs. Our students are cognitively unable, in some cases, to make a behavioral choice with only one example of a negative consequence. Many of our students can take years to understand that relationship, and some cannot get there without requiring more concrete and natural consequences. Still other students may never understand that cause and effect relationship as we hope that they would. But they are still students. The fact that they have not yet been taught or properly learned the necessary skills to avoid violence does not take away their basic rights to a stimulating community of growth wherein they can gain new skills and work towards a richer life experience. In the world of special education, it is the very environments in which a student might gain the skills to avoid this behavior from with they are excluded for exhibiting this behavior!

So, if, in the end, we do need these interventions as options, then how do we regulate them so that they do what they are designed to do- which is keep everyone, the person in crisis included, safe during a crisis?

In my experience, good crisis intervention, whether it involves restraint, seclusion or neither, has these elements:

1) It has a long term plan. In other words, the focus is not solely on stopping a single crisis, but on finding the root causes of the crisis as well as prevention plans and better interventions for the future. This most often takes the form of an FBA, or functional behavior analysis, but might not.

2) The focus of the plan is not only general student safety, but also  around meeting student needs. How does the crisis intervention help the student to get what they need? How does it teach them more positive options for getting what they need? How does it back down interventions so that students can improve self-regulation strategies?

3) It changes with the needs of the student. Anyone who works in our field knows that as crisis intervention progresses, the levels of necessary intervention will change, but great intervention is changing all the time. It requires any staff involved to process the situation by being careful observers, critics of team intervention procedures, and by being ready to adjust any intervention plan based on how a student is reacting to and learning from the current plan.

4) It strives to remain as hand-off as possible. We all know how impossible this is in situations where a student becomes violent, but this doesn’t mean hands-off all together. Whenever you can give a student any room to regain control of their emotions, you must do so, and this so often includes helping a student to feel comforts like safety, dignity and respect. The more you put hands-on a students, the more these basic emotional needs can be compromised. CPI sums this up quite well in their training.

5) It considers all available options. If a student is self-injurious, it does them no good to be secluded, as this only provides them a separate place to continue injuring themselves. If a student is attempting to avoid an activity with violence, seclusion might rob that student of a learning experience around communicating those desires, as opposed to attempting to hurt others. With a variety of interventions available outside of restraint and seclusion, a team can tailor any crisis intervention plan so that a student has the best chance for success, including the necessary guidelines for including SRO or police officer intervention.

And, that is the ultimate goal. Success for the student means safely remaining in the education environment most appropriate to meet their learning needs- their “least restrictive environment” as defined by the law. Despite the crises that we all expect may occur while teaching student with complex living and learning needs, in almost every case, with the right support, we can still keep them safely learning, not just how to avoid a crisis, but appropriate academic content as well.


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