Washington Schools Still Restrain, Isolate Students Often Despite State Laws, Report Says


OLYMPIA — A watchdog report by disability rights advocates found that restraint and isolation have been excessively and improperly used on Washington school students, and disproportionately used on those with disabilities.

Disability Rights Washington and the ACLU of Washington released the report Monday, as lawmakers considered a bill that would ban isolation and limit restraints in Washington schools. The practices of physically restraining a child or leaving a child alone in a locked room are controversial, but sometimes used to control student behavior.

Washington law bars schools from restraining or isolating students unless there is an "imminent likelihood of serious harm," a high bar that educators often fail to meet, the advocates reported. The report, drawing on research studies, emphasizes that the practices "have no academic or therapeutic benefit."

There were more than 24,000 restraint or isolation incidents in the 2019-2020 school year compared to the 7,000-plus incidents during the 2020-2021 school year, when many schools were closed amid the pandemic, according to the report, which drew on state data.

"We know that these practices are extremely disabling and harmful," said Andrea Kadlec, an attorney with Disability Rights Washington, a nonprofit watchdog group, and co-author of the report. The study found Black, multiracial, homeless and foster care students were disproportionately restrained and isolated.

"They are our most vulnerable and traumatized students," Kadlec said. "We are retraumatizing them and compromising their education by restraining and isolating them."

The official figures are likely an undercount, despite a state law requiring data collection, the authors found. Schools report restraint and isolation to districts, which in turn submit overall counts to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. But dozens of schools failed to submit data in the state's most recent collection data, according to DRW and ACLU-Washington.

Still, the data that has been collected points to serious disparities.

Students with disabilities in particular were exposed to restraint and isolation at higher rates. Despite making up just 15% of the student body in Washington, students with disabilities made up nearly 93% of reported restraints and 96% of reported isolation incidents in the 2020-21 school year, according to the report. Elementary school students were disproportionately restrained and isolated — at an age when they are still learning to regulate behaviors and emotions, the report adds.

Some students with especially complex disabilities are sent to private special education schools, known as nonpublic agencies. The programs are meant to offer specialized services that public school districts say they cannot provide. But these schools aren't required to report a range of data — including restraint and isolation incidents — to the state, as The Seattle Times and ProPublica reported late last year in a series examining oversight failures and rampant problems at the state's largest network of nonpublic agency schools.

Disability Rights Washington and the ACLU of Washington obtained data from five nonpublic agencies, which were not identified in the report, showing that restraint and isolation were "rampant" at the private programs. The rates of isolation and restraint at the schools "far exceeds" those at public schools statewide. In one example, 76% of students at one nonpublic agency were subjected to restraints in a given school year, at an average of nearly 18 times per student.

Lawmakers on Monday heard public testimony on Senate Bill 5559, which would prohibit isolation, and would ban the use of so-called "mechanical" and "chemical" restraints.

Schools use mechanical restraints, including metal handcuffs, plastic ties, ankle restraints, stun guns and batons, on students. Chemical restraint refers to using a drug or chemical to manage student behavior that is not part of a standard treatment of a medical or psychiatric condition. Both are allowed under Washington law.

"Think about being a kiddo in first through fifth grade and being put in a closet with the door shut and locked, or being held down so that you couldn't move, or having pepper spray used on you, to control your behavior," said Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Auburn, who is sponsoring the bill.

She said the use of restraint and isolation is "widespread in schools across the state" and poses risks to students and staff.

The bill makes an exception for school resource officers, who are typically sworn police, to use isolation, mechanical or chemical restraints when carrying out arrests.

Isolation, however, would be basically eliminated from the school setting under the bill. All existing isolation rooms would have to remain unlocked, and no new isolation room could be created. By Jan. 1, public schools would have to remove or repurpose all existing isolation rooms.

School districts would have to train staff to comply with the bill, including using de-escalation techniques and trauma-informed care.

"Students do need safe places to de-escalate, to decompress, to self-regulate and to calm themselves," Wilson said. "But those areas should not be a locked closet."

On Monday, former students and parents of students who had been restrained or isolated testified in support of the bill.

"I don't look back at school fondly," said Dorian Taylor, 43, who was restrained in school. "It's a source of trauma that I had to unlearn before I could even pursue higher education."

Tamika Dean's 9-year-old son isn't in school right now "due to the multiple times he was put in isolation and restraint," she told lawmakers.

"He was put in multiple restraints for various reasons, from arguing to refusing to take off a jacket," Dean said. "He's been slammed against the wall. He's come home complaining about his arms hurting. He has nightmares and he has nightmares still."

Representatives of two school employee unions, the Washington Education Association and the Public School Employees of Washington, testified "other" on the bill, asking that lawmakers clarify some of its provisions.

For instance, PSE wants more clarity around the use of "chemical restraints" or medication on students, said Rick Chisa, government relations director for the union.

"We find it problematic that school staff would be put in a position of interpreting or disregarding a prescription authority from an authorized physician," Chisa said in an interview. "And there's no distinction between regular medications that are provided to students as part of their behavioral management and any other type of medications that might be used on a case-by-case basis."

Chisa told lawmakers the union "shares many of the values expressed in this legislation."

"We understand what the bill wants to stop doing in our schools," Chisa said. "It's not entirely clear what they would replace that with. So what interventions would be taken with violent outbursts by students, whether special needs or general education students?"