February 25 2010

Keeping Children Safe at School Requires Empowered Parents

Vicki E. Alger

(This post was co-authored by Evelyn B. Stacey, education policy analyst at the Pacific Research Institute, a free-market think tank in Sacramento, California)

The U.S. House of Representatives may soon vote on the Preventing Harmful Restraint and Seclusion in Schools Act, approved by the House Education and Labor Committee earlier this month.

Everyone agrees children must be safe at school. In a letter to Congress the Council of American Private Education (CAPE) explains that "with respect to the bill's intent to protect children from harm, we stand in solidarity with the sponsors. Our disagreement is with specific provisions of the bill, not its overall purpose." CAPE adds,

The bill represents an unprecedented degree of federal control of private schools that threatens their autonomy and puts them between a rock and a hard place:  accept the federal intrusion in policies and practices or give up participation in federal programs that benefit students and their teachers.  By using even limited involvement in federal programs as the pathway for regulating schools, the bill establishes a dangerous precedent for federal control of private education in the future.

 Specifically, the bill:

•   establishes detailed conditions surrounding the use of physical restraint and seclusion in schools that could actually serve hurt students;

•  regulates commonplace activities such as restraining students in a schoolyard scuffle;

•  and requires an unspecified number of private-school teachers to have special training and certification in the use of physical restraint and seclusion.

According to Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA), "Last year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office told our Committee about a shocking wave of abusive restraint and seclusion in our nation's classrooms." (See p. 1)   The GAO report actually says that it "could not determine whether allegations were widespread." (See pp. 1 and 5)

The GAO reviewed 10 cases for its Committee Report (See pp. 2-3, and 10 ff). Two of them related to private residential facilities. The first case involved a private residential facility in Pennsylvania where a student who tried to attack a counselor died after being restrained. The death was ruled accidental, and no criminal charges were filed.

In the second case, several state agencies investigated a private facility in New York for injuring a developmentally disabled student with restraints and denying him regular access to meals. However, no formal actions were taken, and the investigations themselves were later deemed deficient by other state agencies. In the meantime, the boy's parents moved him to a state-operated facility. He died tragically during a field trip when an aide sat on him for being disruptive on the bus. While the boy lay unconscious, the aide and the bus driver "stopped at a game store and one of the employee's houses." The aide is currently in prison for second degree manslaughter.

In five of the remaining cases, public-school staff involved in restraint and seclusion cases were still working in public schools and/or retained their licenses. In two of the remaining cases-one involving an aide with a felony criminal record-staff were put on probation. The GAO could not determine whether public-school staff in the final case were still teaching.

Elected officials should ensure parents have accurate information, and that they are empowered to act on it. Instead, the federal government wants to impose $250 million worth of red tape when the most powerful lesson from its own accountability agency is that parents should not rely on government to protect their children.

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