AUGUSTA, Maine — Revamped rules regarding the restraint and seclusion of public school students breezed through the Legislature’s Education Committee by a 12-1 vote Wednesday.
The Legislature overhauled the Department of Education’s rules on restraint and seclusion last year after a year-long process during which a stakeholders’ group of parents and educators agreed on what teachers should and shouldn’t be able to do when it comes to out-of-control students.
But soon after the beginning of this school year, educators from across Maine started saying that the new rules weren’t clear enough, which prompted Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, to call for changes earlier this year. Educators have argued that the language could expose them to liability if they are forced to put their hands on a student, even if it’s just to gently push the student to a different location, or as the new amendment puts it, “inducing a student to walk to another location.”
The Maine Education Association said in November 2012 that the restraint rules already had led to dozens of educators being assaulted in the classroom. Educators have further argued that the rules are too rigid and don’t leave teachers the ability to intervene even when a student is lashing out and perhaps destroying school property.
That issue was addressed by one of the amendments accepted Wednesday by the Education Committee. The amendment differentiates between “physical escort” and “restraint.” The amendments also give teachers clearer authority to break up a fight.
Another amendment accepted by the committee Wednesday defines when a teacher is allowed to resort to physical restraint. The current rule says the child must pose “imminent risk of injury or harm,” which is proposed to change to “risk of injury or harm.” Proposed revisions to the state’s restraint policy also would strike the word “imminent” from the rest of Chapter 33 of the Department of Education’s rules. The amendments require the department to report back to the Education Committee on its implementation of the rules.
Rep. Madonna Soctomah, the Passamaquoddy tribal representative, was the only committee member to vote against recommending passage of the bill. Soctomah said after the meeting that she doesn’t believe schools should have the right to restrain a student unless the student’s family agrees to it ahead of time. She said that agreement should be outlined in a document called an “individualized education program,” which is developed as part of a school’s response to a child with behavioral problems.
“I don’t believe that an adult should restrain a child,” Soctomah said Wednesday afternoon. “For a child who never has that experience at home, they should not be able to be restrained in the classroom or anywhere else. It could be a shock to them and their mental health.”
Michael Cormier, superintendent of RSU 9 in the Farmington area, said the Education Committee’s recommendations will improve the rules.
“This is a great first step and, coupled with better training, should address many of the issues our teachers and principals testified about at the hearing,” said Cormier in a press release from the Maine School Management Association. “The rules we had simply were not working. One student was being allowed to disrupt the education of an entire classroom, and there was nothing we could do about it.”
Georgetown resident Kristin Malin, president of the Maine School Boards Association, called the committee’s vote Wednesday “a good compromise.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, which opposed the pending bill as it was originally written, agreed.
“We are confident that this outcome protects safety and civil liberties for teachers and students,” said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the ACLU of Maine. “The Department of Education should take this opportunity to educate administrators, educators and parents on the rules governing restraints.”
The Education Committee voted 12-1 in favor of the bill, which now goes on to the full Legislature for consideration. The rules would go into effect immediately if two-thirds of the Maine House and Senate vote in favor of them.