In what may be one of the last major pieces of legislation he unveils before he retires at the end of this year, Tom Harkin has introduced a bill that would all but end the use of unsafe and abusive methods used to control kids who get unruly in the classroom.  This law is the product of an investigation by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee's Democratic staff into the use of these techniques.

The staff of the senate committee led by Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, highlighted cases characterized as disturbing. They included:

A 14-year-old Georgia boy who committed suicide after being repeatedly left alone for hours in a room comparable to a prison cell.

A Minnesota school that reportedly used secluding 44 times in one school year to discipline an 8-year-old girl with attention and hyperactivity disorders, despite objections from the mother and an independent behavior consultant.

A Florida teen who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and placed in a psychiatric facility after a school employed dangerous restraints and repeated seclusions.

The Senate investigation also found that, under current law, "a family whose child has been injured, experienced trauma, or, in the worst case, has died as a result of the use of seclusion or restraints practices in a school has little or no recourse through school procedures or the courts."

"In fact, the investigation found that only eighteen states currently require parents be notified about the use of seclusion or restraints," the report said.

Read the full report here.  It notes that current law makes it very difficult for parents to recover damages even in cases of blatant abuse.  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is currently written in a way that requires parents to exhaust all options short of legal action before going to court--which means parents often find themselves forced to put their children in another school to keep their kids from being subjected to these practices.  In the Minnesota case, a court actually threw out the mother's lawsuit against her daughter's former school because going to another school effectively made the issue moot--even though her daughter was in an untenable situation at her old school.

Harkin's proposed law, the Keeping All Students Safe Act, would ban the use of mechanical restraints, as well as the use of medications to subue unruly students.  It would also ban the use of locked and unattended seclusion rooms. Physical restraints would only be allowed in emergency situations, and even then any physical restraint that restricts breathing or inhibits the student's "primary means of communication" would be banned.  Parents would have to be notified within 24 hours that their child has been restrained or secluded, and would have the right to sue while pursuing resolution through IDEA and other laws.

Past attempts to standardize the use of restraints have foundered due to opposition from teachers and administrators who say the proposal keeps them from having enough freedom of action to intervene.  However, this reports makes it clear that the status quo is not acceptable.  Several of the incidents documented in the report would make anyone wince.  For instance, in 2011 an Indiana teenager peed on the floor after being locked up in a seclusion room for hours.  He was put back in that room as punishment--and nearly hanged himself.  And in 2012, Corey Foster died after being restrained face-down by several staff members at his Yonkers school for reportedly not leaving the basketball court.  Hopefully this measure will go forward.

The full text of Harkin's bill isn't available yet.  However, George Miller has a similar bill pending in the House.

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