Guidance Issued on Use of Seclusion and Restraint in Schools

Last Updated: May 30, 2012

This article appeared in the May 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

Editor's note: Links are free and current at time of posting, but may require registration or expire over time.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education released the “Restraint and Seclusion: Resource Document” which includes “15 principles for state, district, and school staff; parents; and other stakeholders to consider when states, localities, and districts develop policies and procedures which should be in writing on the use of restraint and seclusion.”

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The Resource Document points out that there continues to be no evidence that using restraint or seclusion is effective in reducing the occurrence of the problem behaviors that frequently precipitate the use of such techniques, and its first recommendation is that “every effort should be made to prevent the need for the use of restraint and for the use of seclusion.” Among other principles, the document recommends:

  • that the tactics should be used only when imminent harm could come to student;
  • that use of seclusion and restraint should be documented and parents made aware as soon as possible if either is used on their child;
  • that restraint or seclusion should never be used as punishment or discipline (e.g., placing in seclusion for out-of-seat behavior); and that
  • teachers and other personnel should be trained regularly on the appropriate use of effective alternatives to physical restraint and seclusion, such as positive behavioral interventions and supports.

The Resource Document also links to state laws and regulations on seclusion and restraint as well as other organizations’ studies and reports on the topic. The newest Office of Civil Rights (OCR) data released in March is also referenced. This OCR data release contained for the first time analysis of restraint and seclusion incident data from every state. (Editor’s note: See previous RPM coverage of the 2012 OCR data release here.)

The Department has been actively encouraging states to develop written policies on the use of seclusion and restraint for several years. A 2009 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report documented hundreds of cases of improper use of these techniques in schools, many of which resulted in injury to students and in some cases student deaths. The GAO report also reported that no current Federal regulations existed on the practice and that there was only spotty state regulation, and further that there were no reliable national data on when and how often restraint and seclusion are being used in schools.

That same year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sent a letter to Chief State School Officers stating that he was deeply troubled about the current use and effects of restraint and seclusion, which were the subject of testimony before the Education and Labor Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives’ hearing examining the abusive and potentially deadly application of restraint and seclusion techniques in schools.

Federal legislation that would place strict limits on the use of the practices in schools passed the House with bipartisan support in 2010. The Keeping All Students Safe Act was the first step toward federal regulation seclusion and restraint in schools. (Editor’s note: See previous RPM coverage of the Act here.) Other institutions receiving federal monies such as hospitals are already regulated in the use of restraint and seclusion.

The Senate Health Education Labor and Pension (HELP) Committee is currently considering their version of the legislation, also called the Keeping All Students Safe Act. (S.2020) The Senate bill, introduced by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), in December 2011, would limit the use of restraint just as the House Bill did but would totally ban, not limit, the use of seclusion.

Speaking about the release of the USDOE Resource Guide, Harkin said, “I am pleased that Secretary Duncan has affirmed today that the use of seclusion and restraint to discipline students is dangerous and outmoded.”

Read more:

U.S. Department of Education webpage describing the issue and including a link to the full document:

U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Work Force’s webpage dedicated to seclusion and restraint issues:

Editorial by Representative Gregg Harper (R.-Miss.) against the use of seclusion and restraint:

On June 28, Chairman Harkin and Ranking Member Michael Enzi of the Senate HELP Committee will host a bipartisan hearing, “Beyond Seclusion and Restraint: Creating Positive Learning Environments for All Children” which will be live-streamed here:

Report from the Autism National Committee: "How Safe is the Schoolhouse? An Analysis of State Seclusion and Restraint Laws and Policies"

Read more from the May 2012 Rural Policy Matters.