JEFFERSON CITY — There is no state law regulating seclusion and restraint in schools. A bipartisan effort is pushing to change that.
Reps. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, and Ian Mackey, D-St. Louis, have filed House Bill 1568 and House Bill 1569 to put rules in place on schools utilizing seclusion and restraint techniques on students. The legislation closely mirrors legislation Mackey proposed in the 2019 legislative session.
The bills seek to define seclusion and restraint and require school districts to prohibit the use of either for any purpose other than ensuring the safety of students and staff. The issue has been contentious in Columbia, with advocates pushing for changes in the school district’s policy.
While many school districts already have similar policies in place, Mackey said there is no state oversight so those policies are not being followed. “What I have seen over the last year has been nothing short of appalling,” Mackey said in a news conference Monday. “Tiny, empty closets built and designed solely for the purpose of isolating small children.
“If a teacher was notified on Wednesday morning by a child that the child’s parent, on Tuesday night, had locked them in a closet and would not let them out, what would that teacher do? I can tell you as someone who spent years in the classroom teaching myself ... I would make an initial call to the child abuse and neglect hotline.”
Yet, Mackey said, the practice goes on day-in and day-out in Missouri schools. He said often no one — not even the child’s parents — is notified when a child is placed in seclusion.
Mackey and Bailey cited a report by ProPublica, which found that thousands of children were being placed in isolation across Illinois for reasons prohibited by state law. Because the state has a law prohibiting isolation for anything other than protecting the safety of children or staff, Illinois can and has begun taking action against schools that violated the law. Mackey said passing a law in Missouri would allow them to do the same.
Bailey and Mackey said they’ve received support from House Speaker Elijah Haar, R-Springfield, and House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield.
“These kiddos, and their state of mind, and the trauma they go through, is not partisan,” Bailey said. “That’s why we wanted to do this as a whole House, not just Republicans or Democrats.”
The bills would also put in place stricter reporting requirements for instances of seclusion and isolation. Currently, the use of seclusion must be reported to the federal Department of Education but only if the door to the seclusion room is locked. This has led staff to place mats and other things in front of the door to keep it closed so they don’t have to report the seclusion.
The bills would require parental notification, a copy of each report given to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and a right to review a report and file a complaint. They would also require DESE to develop recommendations for data collection and reporting seclusion and restraint, which the department would present to the State Board of Education for approval.
Columbia Public Schools spokesperson Michelle Baumstark said the district’s policy mostly aligned with the bills.
One Columbia parent at the news conference said there are other ways to deal with children who are acting out and need special attention. Sara Rivera said her son attends a school in Columbia where instead of isolation rooms, they have a calm-down room. In the calm-down room, her son is supervised by teachers, there is no door and there are soft padded floors, comfortable chairs and sensory items to make the children more comfortable. She declined to name the school.
Rivera said utilizing rooms like the ones at her son’s school can help head-off behavioral issues before they become out of control.
“There are so many ways to head it off,” Rivera said. “There are some kids, sure, they will get to that point and there is a need for (seclusion), but it should be extremely rare. It shouldn’t be a daily norm.”
Another mother at the news conference had a far different experience in Columbia. In a Columbia school, Shawan Daniels said her son was restrained and injured his arm. She said she later took him to the hospital. Daniels said she was not informed until hours after the restraint occurred, when her son had already told her about the incident.
“They said he was behaving in an unsafe manner. I asked them for surveillance, for proof of their story to see the difference between their story and my son’s story, and still to this day I haven’t gotten that,” Daniels said.
Seclusion and restraint measures are often used when dealing with children with educational disabilities. Mackey said many of the cases they’d seen dealt with children who had verbal processing delays and have individualized education programs (IEPs).
Another bill, sponsored by Rep. Chuck Bayse, R-Rocheport, would allow parents to record the meetings when they discuss their child’s IEPs with their teacher. Currently, parents are not allowed to record the meetings, and Bayse said the complex terminology used in the meeting can confuse parents. Additionally, oftentimes only one parent can attend a meeting because of work and therefore misses all that was said in the meeting.
Baumstark said many Columbia teachers are against recording the meetings and that part of the problem is figuring out who maintains the recordings and for how long.
For his part, Bayse is optimistic about the bill’s chances.
“I think the fact that they referred the bill (for committee hearings) this early says a lot,” Bayse said. “I was told by some of the speaker’s people that they liked the bill. The only opposition I know of right now is the school board association.”
The seclusion and IEP bills will have initial hearings with lawmakers Tuesday morning.
Supervising editor is Mark Horvit.