TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Loosening the restraints — how to get information about school “seclusion” tactics

Managing unruly kids who lash out at classmates and teachers is one of the most delicate tasks for schools, and those who must manage emergencies when physical safety is at stake understandably resist being second-guessed.

But there’s evidence that students are at times pinned, tied up or locked away in closet-sized isolation rooms for just being annoying even if they do not present a danger to others.

Federal statistics indicate that disabled students and racial minorities are disproportionately likely to be placed under physical restraint, raising questions about whether the safety measures are administered even-handedly.

Finding out what techniques your school district uses to respond to assaultive kids — and how often — should be a matter of a single public records request. Statistics are not protected by student confidentiality, and so long as the data includes no identifying information about specific students, there should be no valid reason to invoke FERPA, the federal privacy law.

In this podcast interview, reporters Jennifer Smith Richards of the Columbus Dispatch and Molly Bloom of the NPR-affiliated StateImpact Ohio talk about their series on student restraining rooms, “Locked Away.” Along with colleague Ida Lieszkovszky, the reporters sought public records from more than 100 Ohio school districts to investigate whether schools were overusing so-called “seclusion rooms.”

The reporters’ breakthrough was obtaining logs where schools kept track of the reason for which students were placed in confinement. In reviewing those logs, the reporters identified multiple examples of “seclusion” being used purely as a form of punishment rather than a necessary safety measure.

An essential first step is to get familiar with the regulations that apply in your jurisdiction. Although there are no federal statutes dictating how restraints may be used, the U.S. Department of Education has instructed districts to enact policies that regulate how, why and by whom restraining techniques may be used.

For example, Maine recently became the 41st state to enact regulations limiting the use of restraints, allowing school employees to physically immobilize a student only if the student presents an imminent risk of bodily harm and less-restrictive measures have failed.

From there, it’s a matter of finding out how your local schools keep track — or don’t keep track — of the use of physical restraints and the justification. That probably will require at least one round of written requests for public records, but an initial conversation — to figure out what records are kept, who keeps them, and what they’re called — might head off a round of unproductive back-and-forth letters.

Other tips from the Ohio reporters’ podcast interview:

Richards: “For a long time we did not know how many seclusion rooms were in Columbus city schools, and that is Ohio’s largest school district. They did not know. We kept getting a different count. … What we found was many school districts did not keep any sort of aggregate data. They did not know how often rooms were being used. They did not know, generally, why. They did not know, generally, how long students were kept in those rooms. So that was something we had to … parse through ourselves to come to some sort of determination.”

Bloom: “What was helpful to me with my districts was pointing out that we’re asking 99 other districts the same set of questions. ‘We’re not trying to single you out in any way. Most of them have responded, here’s what they said. Can you be just like them?”

Richards: “Be prepared to really understand FERPA well before you send any request out. Know what a student record is. Know what types of student records really are private. Be prepared to argue against privacy when it’s not appropriate. In many cases the logs that we received, with the simple redaction of a name we never could have traced the information back to an individual child. … Once the logs started coming in from the districts, we were able to make that case to other districts and say, ‘Listen, if you simply redact the names, this is a record that will be perfectly fine to release under FERPA.'”

Bloom: “It’s really important to be organized and persistent, especially if you’re focusing on more than one school or more than one school district. You want to track the requests that you’ve sent out and the responses that you have coming back in and the communications you’ve had with each district…. Make sure they know that you’re not going to go away.”