Private companies using questionable techniques to train California schools

California schools are using training programs and physical restraint protocols create by private companies that, in many cases, appear to have few qualifications and receive little oversight. This was the focus of an article in The Bay Citizen, a nonprofit news organization covering the Bay Area in California. While federal law imposes limits on the use of restraints and seclusion in federally-funded hospitals and treatment centers, it has yet to do so in schools.

The article uncovers troubling news of private companies who contract with dozens of school districts across California. Among others, this includes the Handle With Care Behavior Management System, a private contractor with San Francisco Unified School District. The company’s founder, Bruce Chapman, personally developed his “take down” restraint, which he refined “as a martial arts devotee who earned a black belt.” Mr. Chapman got his start in restraint training after dropping out of community college and during what he describes as a chance encounter with an aggressive psychiatric patient.

Literature from Handle With Care describes the company’s restraint technique as “versatile, effective, painless, safe and easy to apply.” In 1998, a 14-year-old boy was restrained by counselors at a Pennsylvania facility whose staff had been trained using Handle With Care techniques. After a $1.2 million settlement between the boy’s family and the facility, the facility stopped using Handle With Care’s training program.

Other private companies are providing services to California school districts, including Pro-ACT, which contracts with the Oakland Unified School District as well as the Mount Diablo Unified School District, among others. Pro-Act admittedly relies on the graduate-level psychology work of its founder from more than 30 years ago. Maggie Roberts, an attorney with Disability Rights California, says school districts view restraint training as a bigger need than ever because they have large classes and less money and are left feeling overwhelmed.

But despite training receive through these and other companies, incidents of restraint, seclusion and other behavioral episodes in California schools more than doubled between the 2005-06 and 2009-10 school years to more than 21,000, according to the California Department of Education. Yet efforts to limit the use of restraint and seclusion in California have been met with resistance. A recent state bill that would have placed limitations on restraint received strong opposition from the California Department of Education, California Teachers Association, California School Boards Association and the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, which represents foster homes throughout the state.

As TASH members know, efforts to enact federal protections against restraint and seclusion have met similar opposition. Legislation that was introduced and passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010 never reached the Senate floor for a vote. A year later, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who introduced the 2010 legislation, has reintroduced the Keeping All Students Safe Act. TASH members and other advocates have been working diligently to support this new legislation, but there is much work to be done. You can view TASH’s advocacy alert on this issue right here and help us advocate for federal protections against abusive restraint and seclusion.