Office of Civil Rights Clarifies Schools’ Limits for Restraint of Students

 ADHD Weekly 2017-02-02

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Alarming news reports on national television have shown several cases of children affected by ADHD and other disabilities being physically restrained by educators or school resource officers. In one particular event, an 8-year-old boy affected by ADHD was restrained by a school resource officer by using handcuffs to hold his arms behind him. In another instance, a teacher was found guilty of assault after writing the word “focus” on the forehead of a middle school student affected by ADHD.

Not only have parents of children affected by ADHD and other disabilities taken notice, so has the Office of Civil Rights for the Department of Education. On Dec. 28, 2016, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) issued guidance in the form a “Dear Colleague Letter” to all public schools to clarify when restraint and seclusion may be used. It makes it clear that the use of restraint and seclusion can violate a student’s educational rights, can be discriminatory, and can create additional academic and behavioral challenges for the student. When an event occurs, the school needs to revisit the child’s academic plan to be sure needed supports are provided to that student.

Restraint is using physical strength or mechanical means to contain a child’s movements. In a crisis where a child is actively trying to hurt himself or others, restraint may be necessary until the child stops. In seclusion, a child is removed from the classroom to another room or space alone, away from his classmates, and unable to leave.

According to OCR’s Civil Rights Data Collection office, students with disabilities were restrained or secluded at a higher rate than other students. The office reports that about 100,000 students were placed in restraint or seclusion during the 2013-14 school year; of those students, 69,000 were students with disabilities who received academic services under IDEA.

“I think the whole notion of the number of complaints OCR gets is playing itself out here,” says CHADD Public Policy Committee member Carl Smith, PhD. The large number of complaints, he says, has prompted the OCR to offer the further guidance because it appears that many schools or administrators do not fully understand the law regarding children affected by disabilities and restraint or seclusion.

Dr. Smith is a professor in the Iowa State University in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. He says the new guidance helps schools better understand the consequences of applying restraint to students affected by disabilities. Parents, he says, have additional information to present to schools when advocating for their children.

What the guidance means for public schools

Schools are reminded:

  • Students with disabilities are to receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). Repeated restraining or secluding of students who are not in crisis interferes with a student’s right to FAPE. If there is an academic plan in place, these practices can interfere with the goals of the academic plan.
  • Students who display behavioral problems may require a 504 Plan to help them be successful. When behavioral issues are the result of a disability, means and methods of response should be defined in the 504 Plan to ensure safety, with minimal negative behavioral, academic and social impact to the child. 
  • When a student is restrained or secluded, even once, the trauma of the event could give rise to additional academic or behavioral challenges that can interfere with his ability to receive FAPE. 

When educators determine a student’s educational needs are not being met, they must:

  1. Determine the extent to which additional or different interventions or supports and services are needed 
  2. Determine whether the current interventions and supports are being done the way that works best for the student 
  3. Ensure that any needed changes are done as quickly as possible 
  4. Correct, to the best of their ability, any denial of FAPE that happened because of the prior use of restraint or seclusion

What parents need to know

You have the right to discuss the effect restraint and seclusion can have on your child. You should know your rights:

  • Restraint and seclusion can interfere with your child’s right to FAPE, including interfering with an existing 504 Plan or IEP.
  • Parents can appeal any decisions made about their children receiving 504 services or an IEP. 
  • Parents can make requests for specific services under both plans.
  • Parents can look at their children’s school records and ask questions about the information.
  • Parents have the opportunity for an impartial hearing if they and the school cannot agree on a course of action.

You can bring the information in the new guidance to the school’s attention when you are advocating for your child, especially when there has been an incident of restraint or seclusion.

What can you do if your child is restrained or secluded?

If your child is restrained or placed in a secluded environment, immediately contact the school principal and your child’s teacher to understand what happened and what led up to the restraint or removal from class.

Dr. Smith suggests requesting a meeting with the educators involved to determine if there need to be adjustments made to the 504 Plan or IEP following the event.

“When there has been restraint or seclusion, it can mean that a youngster is not receiving an appropriate educational program,” Dr. Smith says. “It’s important to go into the meeting and say, ‘These are the needs of my child.’ The common theme is to talk about what supports are provided, not the consequences that could occur.”

You can also bring the Dear Colleague Letter: Restraint and Seclusion of Students with Disabilities to the educators’ attention, he says. Using it as a guide, you and the educators can discuss if the use of restrain or seclusion was appropriate and the school’s responsibilities following the event.

You can also request that any additional academic or behavioral difficulties stemming from the event be included in revisions of your child’s academic plan.

Additional information or assistance from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights:

What are your thoughts on restrain and seclusion when applied to students affected by ADHD?