JEFFERSON CITY — After three years of failed proposals, the Missouri legislature passed a bill barring schools from using child restraint or seclusion as a punishment.
HB 432 started as bill about a Birth Match Program designed to prevent newborns from being placed in dangerous homes. But it expanded into a giant package of provisions protecting any people falling under a “vulnerable” designation — including school children at increased risk of extreme disciplinary measures.
Lawmakers have proposed legislation relating to this type of ban for the past several years. Last year, said one of the bills’ sponsors, Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, their effort managed to pass the House — but then COVID happened.
Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport, said that seclusion rooms are generally designed to be used to prevent emotionally disturbed kids from hurting themselves or others, but in 2019, some parents brought more “disturbing” use of the rooms to his and a couple other lawmakers’ attention.
“The indication was that they were using this room, in violation of the existing law at the time, and they were using them for punishment,” said Basye, citing a mother’s story in which her son suffered severe emotional trauma after being barricaded in a room behind a wrestling mat. That case was in another county, but Columbia Public Schools was also used as an example of a district where such measures were being used.
The legislation has received a lot of support from advocates for disabled children, who are often the target of this kind of discipline.
“This is huge for kiddos with disabilities — really kiddos at all, but especially the ones that have trouble translating the world as it is,” Bailey said.
Robyn Schlep, president of the Missouri Disability Empowerment foundation, said she’s heard stories like this from parents with disabled children all over the state.
Schlep said one of the most important components of the amendment is the definition of seclusion. In the previous version of the law, schools had greater leeway to leave children without supervision. Under the new provision, seclusion is more broadly defined as a situation in which the child is confined alone and prevented from leaving.
She also highlighted the mandate to inform parents and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in situations where restraint or seclusion had to be used, noting that in many cases parents were unaware of the situation prior to obvious exhibitions of mental distress in the child.
Bailey said this received bipartisan support in both chambers and is something the legislature can be proud of; it passed the House almost unanimously.
“You can’t just throw kids in boxes anymore,” Bailey said.
HB 432 also includes a provision protecting parents who wish to record meetings between parents and any school personnel. This would overrule a recent decision from Columbia Public Schools to continue to disallow these kinds of recordings.
Schlep advocated for this measure as well, saying that many of these meetings are long and emotionally complicated and the recordings can be invaluable resources for parents.
The bill incorporates a wide array of other initiatives, including hearing aid coverage by Medicaid, expanding nutrition assistance programs for pregnant women and kids and providing for the installation of baby incubator boxes where infants can be left if an adult wants to give up guardianship.
HB 432 has now been passed by both chambers and will go to the governor’s desk to be signed.