Feb 7, 2024 - Education

Washington bill would limit student isolation and restraint

Students in Washington schools are being restrained or put in isolation thousands of times per year, state data shows — something a bill in the state Legislature aims to change.

Why it matters: Restraining and isolating kids has no clear educational or therapeutic benefit, and can cause physical and psychological harm, state and federal officials say.

Plus: Children with disabilities are restrained and isolated at disproportionately high rates, as are Black and multiracial students, multiple reports have found.

What's happening: A proposal to restrict the use of restraint and isolation in Washington's public K–12 schools — first introduced last year — cleared the state House Appropriations Committee on Monday and could soon come before the full House for a vote.

State of play:
Under current Washington law, restraint and isolation can only be used with students "to control spontaneous behavior that poses an imminent likelihood of serious harm."

  • Restraint can include holding students from behind to restrict their movement; placing them in handcuffs or plastic ties; or using pepper spray.

By the numbers: In the 2021–22 school year, the latest year for which state data is available, more than 2,900 public school students in Washington were restrained in over 13,000 incidents.

  • That same year, more than 1,400 kids were isolated 7,900 times.
  • In nearly 5,300 of the isolation incidents, students were placed in designated isolation rooms — a practice that a state work group recently recommended eliminating.

Flashback: Those numbers have gone down since 2018–19, when Washington schools reported roughly twice as many student restraints and isolations.

  • But the incidents still are happening far too often, state Rep. Lisa Callan (D-Issaquah) — who is sponsoring the bill to curb both practices — said during a public hearing last month.

What they're saying: "We just know that it's a harmful practice," Roxana Gomez, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington's youth policy program director, told Axios.

  • "Students are suffering; teachers are suffering as well. It makes sense to stop the harm."

Details: Callan's bill would ban school staff from using mechanical restraints — such as plastic ties and handcuffs — as well as chemical restraints like pepper spray.

  • It would also ban restraining students against walls, or in positions where they're lying flat on the floor.
  • Isolation of elementary school students would be phased out by 2029, except for situations where it's directed by a doctor and done with parental consent.
  • After 2029, school staff could isolate a student only if they've received state-approved crisis training.

Yes, but: Jared Mason-Gere, a lobbyist for the Washington Education Association, told a panel of lawmakers on Saturday that the statewide teachers union was concerned about the "lack of concrete funding, frankly, for professional development."

  • An amendment added this week would make the measure null and void if money isn't added to the state budget to pay for the development of staff training, among other parts of the bill.

What we're watching: Whether the measure will survive the budget process — and if it will hit roadblocks in the state Senate, where it stalled last year.

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