February 19, 2013

Maine bill would loosen definition of 'restraint' for teachers

Backers say the current reluctance to intervene is leading to property damage and staff injuries.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The state's teachers would be given more leeway to intervene physically when dealing with a disruptive student under a bill scheduled for a public hearing Wednesday.

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Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

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The current rule, which took effect in the fall, prohibits physical restraint unless a teacher is in "imminent danger" of harm. It is being challenged by educators who say the definition of "restraint" is too narrow and the resulting reluctance to intervene is leading to property damage and staff injuries.

"Educators can't be left having to debate what is allowed when our students or staff may be in a risky situation," said Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, which represents teachers.

The bill proposed by Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, would loosen the rule known as Chapter 33. It would allowing teachers to intervene faster and move a student against his or her will without triggering a "restraint" situation that must be documented with extensive written reports.

"We need our educators to focus on teaching again. I am hopeful this bill will allow them to do that while keeping both our students and staff safe in the classroom. I want teachers to teach!" Saviello said in a statement Tuesday.

Among other things, his bill would consider picking up a child under 8 years old, or temporarily touching or holding a student to get them to another location, to be a "physical escort," not restraint.

Supporters of the existing rule oppose the change and say teachers are driven by convenience, not the child's best interest.

"Where is the compassion? Where is the understanding that a student is having a tough time?" asked parent Deb Davis, who had a hand in devising the current rule and opposes Saviello's bill. "Using restraint in the classroom to restore order? If I was (another child) in the classroom, it would really upset me. It sounds barbaric to me."

The new rule, which took effect last fall, came in response to reports of Maine students being restrained inappropriately. It was the first overhaul of the restraint rules in Maine in 10 years.

Among other things, the new rule required districts to report to the state the number of times they put students in restraint or seclusion. Schools do not have to report the circumstances of each incident.

The statewide figures will not be available until the end of the year, but district officials in Portland, the state's largest school district with almost 7,000 students, said they had 52 incidents of restraint and 53 incidents of seclusion in the first quarter of the 2012-13 school year. In neighboring South Portland, which has about 3,100 students, the district reported 101 restraint incidents and 55 seclusions.

Frequently, the same students need restraint or seclusion, sometimes as part of a recommended therapy agreed upon by parents and doctors. In the Portland figures, for example, one student was placed in seclusion 34 times.

In 2009, a bill to prohibit face-down physical restraint died in a legislative committee. The Maine Department of Education then gathered about 25 educators, children's advocates and disability specialists, who proposed the changes that led to the new rules.

But within weeks of the new rule taking effect, teachers were reporting problems, according to Kilby-Chesley, of the MEA. The Maine Principals' Association, the Maine School Superintendents Association and the Maine School Boards Association also support Saviello's bill.

(Continued on page 2)

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