News Release:Monday, February 6, 2023
SEATTLE — School districts throughout Washington frequently use traumatic and physically dangerous restraint and isolation tactics to immobilize and remove students from the classroom even when the student is not a threat to themselves or others, according to a new report from the ACLU of Washington (ACLU-WA) and Disability Rights Washington (DRW). These practices violate state law by subjecting students whose behavior does not pose an “imminent likelihood of serious harm” to extreme punishment, such as being locked alone in a cold, dark, closet-like room for hours at a time.
“Coming Into the Light: An Examination of Restraint and Isolation Practices in Washington Schools” is the result of over a year of research and monitoring of restraint and isolation practices in schools around the state. The new report describes a pattern of illegal use of restraint and isolation tactics, in most instances involving young students in elementary school (K-5) who are still learning to regulate their behavior. DRW and ACLU-WA reviewed two years of data reported by school districts to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). The team conducted more than 140 interviews and spoke with students, former students, parents, school administrators, and educators.
In one case, a parent said their child told them he could not breathe and thought he was going to die while being restrained at school. Another parent said her kindergartener was placed in isolation for up to 30 minutes, multiple times a week for months, often for “cussing.” One survivor described witnessing restraint at a contractual school as an “everyday thing” in all classrooms. Another said he was locked up in a cold isolation room so often, he started wearing multiple warm layers to school: “They say they’re heated rooms but they’re not heated rooms. They’re on a concrete slab with no blanket, no chair, no padding, no nothing.”
These practices create real harms for students, with lasting impacts. The report found that restraint and isolation cause physical harm/injuries, exacerbate behavioral and mental health problems, erode trust of adult relationships and educational institutions, and traumatize students. Former students who experienced restraint and isolation as youth attributed repeated restraint and isolation trauma to lost education, limited employment prospects, poverty, exacerbated disability, and compromised adult living.
These harms are disproportionately borne by the most vulnerable students in our state. Students with disabilities, Black, homeless, low-income, male, elementary, and foster care involved students experience the highest rates of restraint and isolation, according to the report. In 2019-20, students with disabilities were 29 times more likely to be restrained and 45 times more likely to be placed in isolation than their peers without disabilities.
“These students are not outliers,” said Andrea Kadlec, an attorney with Disability Rights Washington. “They are our most vulnerable and traumatized students, and we are retraumatizing them with isolation and restraint.”
The report also found that the state’s current data reporting requirements fail to convey how commonly restraint and isolation is used, who these practices harm and the extent of the harm they cause.
“School districts have a legal obligation to apply restraint and isolation in very specific and rare circumstances. That is not what we found,” said Kendrick Washington, Policy Advocacy Director at ACLU-WA. “Instead, schools are relying on abusive tactics to control and subdue students who are disproportionately members of marginalized and oppressed communities. We cannot allow this to continue. Schools are for education, not terror.”
To end isolation and the overuse of restraint they found in Washington schools, the study authors recommend the Legislature take action to:
- Eliminate isolation in schools
- Invest in mental health and trauma supports for students, families, and educators.
- Ban mechanical and chemical restraint and clarify the limits on restraint.
- Invest in and fund training for alternative approaches to restraint and isolation.
- Modify data reporting requirements and use data for restraint and isolation reduction.
HB 1479 / SB 5559 seek to eliminate the practice of isolation of students in schools. The legislation also seeks to make restraint safer by eliminating both mechanical and chemical restraint in Washington schools.
SB 5559 will be heard Monday, Feb. 6 at 1:30 p.m. in the Senate Early Learning and K-12 committee. The hearing will be livestreamed on TVW at this link.