Debate over restraints in schools was a missed opportunity to educate

Let’s talk about use of restraint. This means of control used against people with disabilities has long been a flashpoint […]

Students in class with masks

Let’s talk about use of restraint. This means of control used against people with disabilities has long been a flashpoint in our community. 

Restraint is used to limit movements. It can be physical. It can involve mechanical devices or drugs.  

Use of various restraints has raised red flags in many settings – schools, jails, prisons, group homes and residential facilities. It can be a very unsafe form of punishment, causing injury and even death. 

Especially dangerous is prone restraint. Prone restraint is a method of intervention where a person’s face and frontal part of the body are placed in a downward position touching any surface, for any amount of time. This punishment that can quickly escalate a bad situation, especially for young people with disabilities. 

We in the disability community take use of any form of restraint seriously. We’ve had to. 

Seclusion and restraint used against young people at the Minnesota Extended Treatment Options (METO) facility in Cambridge led to a groundbreaking lawsuit more than a decade ago. Use of prone restraint was called out in that case, as were other forms of restraint. That lawsuit not only forced changes in practices at facilities statewide, it also jump-started work on Minnesota’s Olmstead Plan. 

Since August 1, 2015, Minnesota school districts have been prohibited from using prone restraint restraints as an emergency restraint for students with disabilities. Based upon that prohibition, school district staff aren’t authorized to use prone restraint as an emergency restraint for students with disabilities under the reasonable force statute. 
That’s the law. But we know all too well that the law is not always followed. And we know that other forms of restraint can also cause injury and even fatal injury. That’s why more had to be done. 

During the 2023 legislative session, work was done to strengthen the language on and limits to the use of restraint. Those changes are now in effect.  

The changes have raised red flags, with several Minnesota police and sheriff’s departments pulling their student resource officers, or SROs, out of schools. 

Attorney General Keith Ellison has weighed in with two opinions stating that says the law doesn’t prevent officers from “reasonable” uses of force against students. While Ellison’s ruling gave assurances to some law enforcement agencies and insurance providers, some law enforcement agencies are still not returning their SROs to schools.

Gov. Tim Walz isn’t open to calling a special session to clarify the new law. Walz has said in interviews that insurance providers who work with law enforcement are satisfied with the language Ellison brought forward. 

We’d like to have seen a special session called before the restraint issue became even more of a political football than it already is. Or, we’d like to have seen issues further clarified without the costs and hassles of a legislative special session. The challenge with a special session is that a request to act on one issue can result in a flood of other, unrelated issues coming into the gate. 

We strongly agree with the intent of the law change, and the need to not use restraint against any student unless there are no other means to control a situation. While we think it is stated clearly, we respect that others want clarification. 

We sometimes hear the cry, “Get rid of the SROs.” While some students aren’t comfortable with SROs, others feel safer with SROs. Bullying is a huge issue in some schools and SROs have helped to deter that. We acknowledge that this is an issue not everyone agrees on. 

Law enforcement officers face dangerous issues every single day on the job. We respect that, too. 

Our foremost concern is that behavior issues are handled in ways that do no harm. But there’s also this. We know that schools and law enforcement agencies must seriously weigh the prospect of costly litigation in restraint cases and what that does to budgets. Money spent on payouts is taken away from classrooms and other needs including our students’ needs. 

We’d like to have seen the state law change come with much more emphasis on and support for SRO and school district training on disability issues and de-escalation. Everyone who works in law enforcement and security could use more training. Our own editor was recently in a situation that escalated because a security guard thought a metal fidget spinner was a weapon. 

In our opinion, there can never be enough training on how to work with members of our disability community — in any setting and in any circumstance. The new law was a missed opportunity to do that. 

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