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Report: Nearly 7K instances of student physical restraint occurred in Wisconsin schools

DPI data from 2021-22 shows 76 percent of students physically restrained have a disability

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Empty halls as students work on laptops in a nearby classroom.
Empty halls as students work on laptops in a nearby classroom in Newlon Elementary School early Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, which is one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students are participating in remote learning in this time of the new coronavirus from a school in Denver. David Zalubowski/AP Photo

Wisconsin schools reported nearly 6,000 instances of seclusion and nearly 7,000 occurrences of physical restraint during the 2021-22 school year, according to the latest data available from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Among those instances, 1,920 students at 32 percent of Wisconsin’s schools were secluded and 2,856 students at 44 percent of the state’s schools were physically restrained, DPI data shows. The data does not indicate whether these incidents occurred simultaneously.

Students with individualized education programs, or IEPs, comprised 79 percent of all seclusion incidents and 76 percent of all physical restraint incidents reported for the 2021-22 school year, according to DPI. Students with IEPs only make up about 14 percent of Wisconsin’s school-age children.

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Mary Cerretti, an advocacy specialist on the Schools and Civil Rights team of Disability Rights Wisconsin, said throughout history students with disabilities have higher rates of discipline. Cerretti said more training is needed for educators and more mental health services are needed for students.

“That just opens a big can of worms because we’re just not intervening early enough to meet their needs prior to them elevating to the higher-level behaviors,” Cerretti said. “We absolutely can do it, we need to request special ed funding.”

Abby Swetz, a former special education assistant teacher and current spokesperson for DPI, said seclusion and restraint should be the last resort.

“How can we make sure the individuals in our schools are all trained in how to regulate emotions? How can we make sure that we are meeting the mental health needs that we know are so significant, and we know are growing in significance? And how can we really make sure our schools are places of belonging for every single kid?” Swetz said.

The Republican-led state Legislature cut more than $276 million for mental health services in schools from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed budget. Those services included money to create evidence-based mental health programs in schools.

Children in elementary schools were involved in a higher percentage of instances of seclusion and/or physical restraint than other levels of school, according to DPI data.

“Reading this report and seeing these numbers can be difficult, but that is nothing in comparison with the emotional difficulty these numbers represent in the lived experiences of students and staff,” State Superintendent Dr. Jill Underly said in a written statement.

A year-long investigation by Hearst Newspapers, released October 2022, found these practices are used disproportionately on students with disabilities, Black students and boys, according to state and federal data.

Some younger students and students with intellectual and physical disabilities may be particularly vulnerable because they cannot communicate easily, or at all, what happens to them to their parents or other adults, according to the Hearst investigation.

There are no federal laws to determine how teachers or principals can use restraints or seclusion on children, despite federal law banning these practices in hospitals, psychiatric facilities and nursing homes.

Wisconsin law allows the use of physical restraint and seclusion in schools only in “circumstances where a student’s behavior presents a clear, present, and imminent risk to the physical safety of the student or others.”

Seclusion is when a student is put in a room or area where they are physically not able to leave.

Restraint occurs when a student is restrained either by another person or by the use of other devices such as straps, blanket wraps or helmets. These devices have to reduce the ability of a student to freely move their body or head. This also includes putting a child in a chair so the child cannot get free.

In Wisconsin, at least one staff member in each school where restraint might be used has to be trained on the practice.

If either method is used, an incident report has to be filled out and the student’s guardian must be notified. Schools are also required to submit a report containing information on the use of seclusion and restraint in schools to DPI each year by Dec. 1. The 2021-22 school year was the third year this information was required.

Nearly half of Wisconsin schools reported at least one incident where either seclusion or physical restraint was used on a student during the 2019-20 school year, the first required reporting year. That year, students with disabilities comprised 82 percent of all seclusion incidents and 77 percent of physical restraint incidents, according to DPI.

The 2021-22 year occurred while pandemic mitigations were still in place making it unlikely that students were present every day. According to the report, that makes it difficult to determine an accurate baseline measurement of incident rates. DPI officials say they’re eager to collect and analyze data for the 2022-23 school year to see how it compares with previous years.

Underly said schools should remain committed to reducing the frequency of these incidents.

“We must especially focus on using this information to better inform and improve our systems and best practices when working with our students with disabilities,” Underly said.

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