Sen.Tom Harking, D-IA, discusses the conditions in which students are detained at a press conference Wednesday. (Jonathan Palmer/Medill News Service)

Sen. Tom Harking, D-Iowa, discusses the conditions in which students are restrained and secluded at a press conference Wednesday. (Jonathan Palmer/Medill News Service)

WASHINGTON — A bill introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Wednesday would prohibit disciplinary and safety practices in schools that result in children being locked alone in rooms or physically restrained, practices the Senate education committee says happen thousands of times a year.

The practices, known as seclusion and restraint, are typically used on students with behavioral challenges or disabilities. Seclusion refers to the involuntary isolation of a student in a separate room, and restraints refers to any methods used to physically immobilize a student, whether by a teacher or through use of a device. Last year, an  Arizona teacher used duct tape to bind a student to a chair; in April 2012 a 16-year-old New York student with disabilities was killed after being held face-down by at least four school staff members.

In a report released Wednesday by the Senate Committee for Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, the committee cited Education Department statistics indicating nearly 40,000 incidents of restraint and about 25,000 seclusion incidents in the 2009-10 school year. The report found that seclusion and restraints are often used without the knowledge of a student’s family, and sometimes despite the family’s objections. According to the report, some families resort to transferring their children to different schools to avoid the practices.

“Even when families have been successful in stopping the use of seclusion and restraint, they’ve found it very difficult to change school practices so that it doesn’t happen again to their children or to other kids,” Harkin said.

Four states ban all seclusion for students with disabilities, and nine states ban seclusion in rooms with locked doors; 13 states allow it in emergency situations.

The Keeping All Students Safe Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., would prohibit seclusion in locked, unattended rooms and only allow restraints to be used in emergencies. It also would give families legal recourse to demand action from school districts, require schools to report use of restraints and require states to promote alternative practices and preventative training.

After Harkin’s announcement of the bill,  19-year-old Robert Ernst of Lexington, Mass., spoke about being restrained in elementary school.

19-year-old Robert Ernst of Lexington, Mass. shares his experience with seclusion and restraint when he was in elementary school. (Jonathan Palmer/Medill News Service)

19-year-old Robert Ernst of Lexington, Mass., shares his experience with seclusion and restraint when he was in elementary school. (Jonathan Palmer/Medill News Service)

“I was dragged down the hallway of the school by my wrists and thrown into a windowless padded concrete room by myself,” he said.

Ernst said he was restrained up to 10 times a day by his special education teachers. One time, two teachers held him on the ground by his arms and legs for refusing to do a cursive writing assignment.

According to the committee’s report, such practices often lead to psychological trauma for students, if not physical harm. In extreme cases, students have attempted or committed suicide while in seclusion. Ernst said his experiences have led him to distrust authority figures throughout his school years.

Opponents of the bill call it a federal overreach that impedes local and school authorities’ abilities to administer seclusion and restraints in appropriate situations, such as those in which students or faculty are in danger.

“It fails to recognize the need for local school personnel to make decisions based on their onsite, real-time assessment of the situation,” directors of the National School Board Association and the American Association of School Administrators said in a joint statement. “Our primary concern must be the safety of all students and school personnel.”

But Dr. Michael George, director of the Centennial School in Pennsylvania, said in an interview after the Harkin announcement that  seclusion and restraints make it harder for students to behave.

“What we are beginning to learn is that when children in school show agitation, there’s something unsettling there in front of them,” George said. “We can go through the environment and structure it in such a manner that we are basically preventing agitation, aggression, et cetera.”

The bill also would prohibit seclusion and restraint tactics from being built into students’ individualized education programs, or IEPs, unless specifically allowed by the state. IEPs are mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to help children with learning disabilities learn more easily.

Schools often recommend the practices as part of IEPs if they think students’ behavior could put them or others in danger. Under Harkin’s bill,  this would only be allowed in emergencies.

Some organizations, such as the Council for Exceptional Children, which focuses on educational success for children with disabilities, do not believe that seclusion and restraint should be in IEPs at all.

“An IEP lays out planned intervention for children with disabilities and we do not believe restraint should be a planned intervention,” said Kim Hymes, senior director for policy and advocacy services at the Council for Exceptional Children.

This is the third time a version of the Keeping All Students Safe Act is being brought before Congress. A version passed in the House but died in the Senate in 2010, and both Miller and Harper introduced the bills again in 2011. A House version of the bill was re-introduced by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., in May 2013.