When Jennifer Johnson was looking for specialized programs for her daughter Sarah, then a 10-year-old with intellectual disabilities, to attend, she chose the Eslie J. Parquette School in Saco because she could not find evidence that the school restrained or secluded its students.
But one day, she went to pick up her daughter from school and found her curled up on the floor of an empty room in a fetal position, sobbing, while three adults blocked the exit. Less than a year later, Johnson fought to get her traumatized and injured daughter discharged from the day treatment program, run by the mental health services organization Sweetser.
Within the course of a month from October to November 2018, Sarah was physically restrained or held down against her will 19 times for a total of 5.4 hours. She was secluded 10 times, spending 6.3 hours alone in a room with adults blocking the entry, according to Johnson, who received incident reports from the school.
“She was restrained and secluded in a facility that reports no restraint and seclusion,” she said.
Restraint and seclusion in Maine have been on the rise since 2014, according to a new report by the statewide advocacy organization Disability Rights Maine. Schools used these practices — which are only meant to be used in emergencies when children pose threats to their own or others’ safety — more than 20,000 times during the 2017-18 school year.
More than half of the total incidents happen at special education schools.
However, the real number might be even higher due to a lack of reliable data. Though state regulations require it, several public school districts and private schools have not reported their restraint and seclusion numbers to the Department of Education, as evidenced by incomplete data available on its website.
In 2017-18, the two largest school districts, Portland and Lewiston, did not report their restraint and seclusion numbers.
At a legislative hearing on Monday before the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, parents and disability rights advocates testified in favor of a bill, LD 1376, that would require schools to accurately their report restraint and seclusion numbers through annual reports to the Maine Department of Education. The bill would also require an annual report from the state education commissioner to lawmakers and the governor on the use of restraints and seclusion.
Johnson was one of the parents who spoke in support of the bill at the hearing.
“I’m baffled at the rise in the incidents,” said Rep. David McCrea, D-Fort Fairfield.
Disability Rights Maine Attorney Ben Jones shares that disbelief.
“Not only are the numbers baffling, but also the fact that they keep rising after a well-meaning group of people got together six years ago to try and reduce this,” Jones said, referring to the development of Chapter 33, the set of state regulations governing restraint and seclusion and requiring that schools report their use of the practices to the state.
The opposition to the bill came primarily from school administrators.
Jill Adams, executive director of Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities, said that professional development and more specialists trained in special education might do more to reduce restraint and seclusion use than the bill.
“MADSEC does not believe that the changes this bill makes will improve services to children, but it will certainly cause more money to be spent on litigation,” Adams said.
The Maine Department of Education also opposed the bill.
While the debate continues, Maine’s students, particularly those with disabilities, continue to be restrained and secluded at a higher rate than the national average, according to the Disability Rights Maine report.
Johnson said she plans to continue fighting for accurate reporting of the use of these practices at the Parquette School and everywhere else, until some progress is made.
“I want schools to be required to accurately record and report restraint and seclusion,” she said. “I am never, ever going to send my daughter back to that school again, but I don’t want this to happen to any other child.”