LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Students can be held down, physically restrained, without parents’ permission in Arkansas. These techniques used by school districts have proven deadly across the country. In the Natural State, we have no idea how often it happens, because there are no reporting requirements or mandatory regulations. 

Seven and Restrained

Seven-year-old Andrew Jones likes to stay on the move. He’s been diagnosed with autism, ADHD, and anxiety. So, the school classroom can be overwhelming at times. 

“They just make lots of noise. And I don’t get personal space,” he said as he fidgeted with his toys. “I get overwhelmed. I want to escape and run away.” 

The first time his mom heard of staff restraining him, it threw up a red flag. She’s never had to use restraints at home.  

“It’s heartbreaking to have your child treated that way,” Amy Jones said. 

In her western Arkansas school district, she said her son was restrained multiple times and also left in a “seclusion” room. By the time family members got to the school, Andrew had defecated on himself while locked inside. 

Despite her protests, and suggestions for alternatives, she said restraints continued to happen in the classroom and the hallways. 

“So…I don’t like to be…like this,” Andrew said, mimicking how his hands were held behind his back. “It made me upset, and I tried to escape.”

According to Amy, school staff held his hands behind his back while he was sitting in a chair, refusing to let him move. When she followed up with the teacher, the only response she received was a note that said, “You have been misinformed.” 

“No follow up. Nothing. No explanation. That’s all I got — that I had been misinformed,” she said. “That was the second time — and the only reason I knew was because Andrew came home and said he had been arrested at school.” 

The reported restraints continued in the hallway. Amy learned of it after a schoolmate saw Andrew in Walmart with his uncle and brought up the fact that he had been held down in the hall. 

“I couldn’t get out ,” Andrew grunts, when describing the episode in the hallway. “And the principal grabbed my legs, and then some other people grabbed my arms.”

According to Amy, when Andrew fully demonstrated what had happened, he showed her a prone restraint. Talks with the principal and the school went nowhere, she said. 

“They denied it happened. We asked for a meeting and they said that he was just laying in the floor. That’s not what was described to us by his classmate or Andrew. They said if there had been a restraint – they would have had to fill out a form and report it. Since there was no form, there was no restraint.”

Behind the Ball: DRA Argues for Mandatory Regulations

It’s experiences like Andrew’s that concern Disability Rights Arkansas. DRA is a nonprofit agency that has been appointed as the independent protection and advocacy system by the Governor. It operates with authority outlined in federal law. 

“It worries us that something terrible might occur to one of these students,” said DRA staff attorney Cassie Howell. 

Howell produced a white paper on the use of restraints in Arkansas, compared to other states across the country.

At this point, Arkansas is one of just eight states in the country that has no law or mandatory regulation on use of restraints in schools. 

“We’re behind the times in this area. We really need to take that extra step to protect our kids,” Howell said. “We would like to see restraints eliminated in schools. But we recognize that safety is a priority as well. We’ve simply seen incidents where the restraint actually puts the child and staff at risk of injury. And many times it can actually make the behavior worse.”

The Arkansas Department of Education issued guidance in 2014 that recommends restraints only be used as a last resort and in situations where there’s imminent danger to the student  or others. The guidelines are not mandatory and there’s no enforcement or complaint mechanism built in. 

“We are hearing complaints and reports of things that don’t come close to imminent danger,” Howell said. “Some of the things we have heard reported are – a child that’s pulled a fire alarm. A child throwing paper airplanes. These are not appropriate uses of restraints.” 

The guidelines also call for staff reporting restraints to parents, holding de-briefing sessions to prevent their use in the future, and other protocols. 

“That, as far as we know, is not happening on a consistent basis across the state,” Howell said. “We often hear from parents who say they only learned of the issue from their children or a classmate. We have no idea what happens with nonverbal children, or children who don’t know how to talk to their parents about what is happening.” 

There are three types of physical restraints typically used. According to Howell, complaints have come from all over the state, with no single geographic area or district being the sole culprit for complaints. 

Those three main types are basket holds, where an adult would wrap their arms over the child’s chest from behind. The child’s arms are captured within the hold. There have been documented injuries, including rib fractures, caused by these holds. 

Supine restraints place a child on his or her back, with pressure applied. Sometimes that’s through multiple adults holding the child’s limbs. Depending on the technique staff are taught, it might result in multiple adults lying on top of the child – which has proven dangerous in the past. 

The most dangerous hold, however, is the prone position. An individual is held down on his stomach, typically with hands behind the back, similar to what Andrew described to his mother.

“He was in a prone position,” Amy said. “And he said one staff member had his hands behind his back and the other had his feet. That was terrifying to me. Children have died like that.”

Prone restraints do have a documented dangerous history, linked to suffocation deaths of children as young as seven. 

“You can run the risk of cutting off someone’s air without realizing it,” Howell said. “It’s incredibly dangerous – and we would like to see prone restraints banned outright. Particularly, if you think of a nonverbal child who can’t communicate that they’re having trouble breathing, it could have terrible outcomes.” 

Despite the dangers, DRA says reports like Andrew’s continue to come in year after year from all across the state. There is no way to get a sense of how often schools are resorting to restraints, because school districts aren’t required to report stats to the state. 

“Without the data – we can’t really know how prevalent the problem is how bad it has gotten or ways to address it,” Howell said. 

Education Professionals Say Unfunded Mandate Would Pose Problems

The U.S. Department of Education surveys schools on restraints. In Pulaski County, not a single school reported a single use of restraint.

“I don’t feel that it does represent what is happening, but to what degree it’s not representative, I would not know,” said Marcia Harding, an education consultant who works with districts across the state. 

Harding served as a director of special education for Arkansas for a decade. She sat in on forums and discussions regarding seclusion and restraint, which began in earnest on the national level in 2009, following a Government Accountability Report that attributed serious injuries and deaths of children to the use of restraints. 

But efforts at federal legislation have gone nowhere. Non-mandatory guidance was issued by the U.S. Department of Education in 2012 that has been periodically updated.

But an enforceable statute or regulation hasn’t developed, leaving states to come up with their own tactics. That’s created, at best, a patchwork of inconsistent protections across the country and within individual states.

“I understand the gravity of it I understand the need to address it, no matter which form it takes,” Harding said. “I don’t know if it requires federal legislation or state legislation. I do think there needs to be some accountability and some idea of how these restraints are being use. But a lot of districts struggle with unfunded mandates and a lack of access to highly-skilled individuals that can train their staff in these areas.” 

PCSSD: No Formal Protocol but a Preference for Training

Among the big three districts in Central Arkansas, policies vary from a paragraph in personnel protocols to multiple page documents for reporting requirements. In PCSSD, the special education department works to adhere to the state guidelines. 

There’s no written protocol, but the district does focus on nonviolent crisis intervention training through CPI, which North Little Rock also uses to train staff on the use of restraint and deescalating situations.

“The best intervention is no restraint  whatsoever,” said Stephanie Cole, Special Education Program Director for PCSSD.

The training extends not just to special education teachers but bus drivers, security, nurses and staff across PCSSD. The training is ongoing and updated regularly. According to Cole, 

“It’s a possibility for any of us to use what we know therefore,” Cole said. “Until you know better you can’t expect to do better.”

According to Cole, the district’s first effort is at deescalation and developing behavior intervention plans for students, to avoid triggers and the need to use restraints. Often, Cole said, restraints can be traumatic for both students and staff, even worsening a behavior the district is trying to correct. So, preparing, training and recognizing what’s behind the behavior can often be more beneficial than simply restraining, secluding or suspending students.

“The expectation in this district is for them to understand what they’re signing up for recognizing those challenging behaviors and responding appropriately to those behaviors,” she said. 

One State: Zero Consistency

But all of that training and support costs time and money. Those resources aren’t available equally across the state, leaving districts to deal with the issues differently. 

“Parents in this district may never have to worry about it and parents over here may have to all the time,” Howell said. “That’s why we think there needs to be some enforceable standards to offer consistency across the state. Something that is recognized as the best practice that schools must follow, not just try to follow.” 

“Even in the face of a mandate that [access to resources and training] would still be a challenge,” Harding said. “I think that’s something that we have to think about when we discuss mandatory regulations. Will schools have the time or money to accomplish what’s required? So often, I hear from schools that want to do the right thing, but they don’t have the funds, time or staff to meet some of these unfunded mandates.” 

Amy isn’t sure whether she’ll send Andrew back to his school. 

“They’re not mandated to tell parents what’s going on… that’s what’s scary,” she said. 

She’d like to see the state beef up training, require informing parents and teach alternatives to restraint. Without mandatory regulations or a law, she’s not sure anything will change otherwise. Without mandatory regulations, she’s afraid families in this state could be on a crash course with disaster. 

“I hate to say that it might take that — until something bad happens — or parents get tired of it ,” Amy said. “But that is really what I’m afraid of.” 

Options for Parents

Both Harding and Howell pointed out that children served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) parents might have a mechanism for challenging inappropriate uses of restraints as a denial of a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE). 

That process involves a due process hearing, and possibly lawsuits in federal court.

Before it gets to that point, Howell recommends having a conversation with your student’s district. 

“I would suggest if parents are concerned their child’s disability might lead to restraints, or if they have been restrained in the past, to have those conversations on the front end,” Howell said. 

She also suggested parents request a copy of the district’s restraint policy, ask for a crisis intervention plan that is created as part of the student’s IEP, and request notification of any restraint or physical intervention. If the school fails to follow through, that could provide parents grounds to contest the use of restraints, despite there being no formal complaint process in the state. 

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