On Tuesday, the US Departments of Education and Justice jointly announced guidelines on student discipline to address glaring racial and ethnic disparities in disciplinary procedures chronicled in The Washington Post’s article “Federal guidelines address discipline in nation’s schools.” TASH, a research and advocacy organization for individuals with significant disabilities, appreciates the initiative, but these guidelines fall well short of what is needed to protect all children in school.
The Department of Education’s Catherine Lhamon adds in a blog post that the Department’s Office for Civil Rights data, “indicates that students of color disproportionately bear the burden when schools use exclusion as punishment – they are disciplined more harshly and more frequently than other students, resulting in serious, negative educational consequences.”
The over-representation of children of color and students with disabilities revealed by the Office of Civil Rights discipline data are concerning, and we commend the Department of Education for addressing the complicated issues of racial disparities by partnering with the Department of Justice.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan reinforced the need to address racial disparities in disciplinary procedures when he announced the joint guidelines, explicitly referenced the disproportionate use of exclusionary discipline with students with disabilities and students of color who also experience disabilities.
While new guidance is important and consequential, it is not sufficient to fully address the use of the most dangerous so-called disciplinary practices that continue to threaten students with disabilities in schools—restraint and seclusion. Restraint and seclusion are methods used to control children who exhibit challenging behaviors. Research shows that such methods – which include forced immobilization, sensory deprivation and physical harm – are more akin to torture and can be harmful to a child’s cognitive, social and emotional development. According to these same OCR datasets, students with disabilities are nearly six times as likely as their non-disabled peers to be physically restrained at school; students of color who also experience disabilities are twice as likely to be secluded or physically restrained compared to white students with disabilities. These statistics are unconscionable and the use of physical restraint and seclusion are dangerous and have proven to be deadly.
Research has demonstrated time and again that restraint and seclusion are harmful and dangerous for the children who are subjected to these techniques, and the adults who are utilizing them. Research has also shown that the use of restraint and seclusion does nothing to change student behavior. We also know there are many effective alternatives.
In 2012, the Department of Education issued a resource document that lays out 15 principles on the prevention of seclusion and restraint in schools, however, just like the new guidelines, these principles are NOT enforceable.
TASH calls for the Department of Education to exercise its full authority to prevent students from being physically and emotionally harmed in the name of education. We ask that they reissue the 15 principles (Restraint and Seclusion: A Resource Document) as non-regulatory guidance, thereby making the principles enforceable. This step would insure critical protections for students with disabilities.
Executive Director, TASH