State investigators told a senate committee they lack the power to hold schools accountable for punishing students by restraining or secluding them

By Alex Baumhardt, Oregon Capital Chronicle, February 2, 2023

School staff have held students down and left them in closets as punishment without any repercussions, state officials, parents and advocates said this week. 

Students with disabilities, especially, have suffered unnecessary seclusion and restraints, they told lawmakers on Wednesday. Some had been pinned to the ground under gym mats by staff, unable to move. Yet such treatment wouldn’t warrant an investigation by state officials because restraint and seclusion aren’t included in the state’s definition of abuse in schools. 

A proposal from state Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, aims to change that. 

Senate Bill 790 would expand the definition of abuse against students to include certain types of restraints and seclusion, and it would give officials at the Oregon Department of Human Services Office of Training, Investigations and Safety, or OTIS, broader latitude to intervene. The office investigates allegations of child abuse in schools by school employees, volunteers or contractors. 

“We’re giving OTIS the ability to consider whether the restraint that they’ve been called out to investigate is a violation of existing law,” Gelser Blouin told the Senate Human Services Committee. 

Dave Manly, who leads the investigations office, told senators that often his staff can’t investigate reports of restraint and seclusion because they do not currently meet the definition of child abuse in a school setting under state law.

Neglect cases

In 2022, the department received 1,581 allegations of child abuse in Oregon schools through its child abuse hotline, Manly said. Of those, 208 were investigated, and officials found violations in 28 cases. A total of 21 involved neglect.

Manly said neglect in schools is most often reported in response to an employee failing to properly supervise a student with a disability or failing to follow instructions in a student’s individualized education plan, or IEP, which is designed to keep the student safe. Every student with a disability must have such a plan under federal law. 

“Maybe the IEP is designed to keep a kid safe and the teacher didn’t follow that and the kid was harmed in some way,” Manly said. 

Abuse, on the other hand, is described as causing intentional physical or mental injury. If abuse is confirmed in an investigation, officials at the Department of Education and the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission are notified, Manley said. The staff suspected of abuse are given due process, with cases heard by an administrative law judge who would decide on the punishment. Manley shared chilling anecdotes at the meeting about his office’s limited authority to investigate restraints and seclusion.

In one case, a student was restrained by school staff despite the students’ IEP stating they should not be restrained.  

“So the kid ended up getting his front teeth knocked out, because they fell to the ground during the restraint,” Manley said. 

Had certain kinds of restraints constituted abuse under state law, the human services department would have had more authority to hold school staff accountable for hurting the student. Instead, the case was not found to be abuse, Manley said. 

“The truth of the matter is, the restraint shouldn’t have taken place.” he said.

In another case, a nonverbal child with disabilities was dragged across the floor by their arms and also frequently isolated in a closet without windows or padding. Manley said his staff could not investigate it as an abuse case because the definition doesn’t include seclusion.

That’s just one story, one incident, of a case that we cannot investigate,” Manley said, “because it was not a report of the kid being physically abused.”

A committee member, Sen. James Manning, D-Eugene, was visibly angered and saddened by the stories. He asked what consequences there were for such acts.

“We outlawed the use of solitary confinement at Oregon Youth Authority and other youth facilities,” he said. “It’s the same thing. The trauma will last forever.” 

Failure to report

Though the use of restraints or seclusion is not considered abuse, Oregon law requires schools to report them. Yet Gelser Blouin said many districts fail to do so. Districts must post annually on their websites a report detailing the number of times and circumstances under which restraint and seclusion have been used. Gelser Blouin’s staff found that over the last four years, just 10% of districts had posted those reports.

“And yet all of them have signed off on their Division 22 standards to the Department of Education, saying that they have complied with that requirement,” Gelser Blouin said.

David Richmond, director of Developmental Disability Services for Tillamook County, told the senators that the lack of accountability from schools was a major concern. He’d previously worked in Columbia County where school staff had wrapped kids up in gym mats and held them to the ground. In Rainier, a teacher had held a student’s head down on their desk for speaking out of turn, and in Vernonia, a bus driver forced a student with a disability off the bus and left them on the sidewalk, he said.

When Richmond asked to see the reports from the school districts detailing acts of physical restraint each year, including incidents he’d responded to, school administrators told him they’d never been out of compliance and posted no data. 

Gelser Blouin said she is following up with the Oregon Department of Education to find ways to ensure schools record and post their use of restraints and seclusion on students.

FEATURED IMAGE:  Lawmakers heard from the director of the Oregon Department of Human Services’ Office of Office of Training Investigations and Safety about limitations his staff face when it comes to investigating restraint and seclusion used on students.

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