School board postpones restraint policy vote to fall

The Bellevue School Board postponed a vote on a restraint policy for special needs students after constituents came out en masse to protest its wording.

In 2013, in response to reports of punitive use of “isolation rooms” in Longview School District special education classrooms, the Washington State Legislature passed a law requiring schools to report restraint of students with individualized education programs to parents within 24 hours and to share the district’s isolation and restraint policy with said parents. The law effectively requires districts to have an isolation and restraint policy in place, prompting the school board to vote one in.

The state law limits the use of isolation and restraint — the latter including actions involving pepper spray, batons or tasers — to incidents in which an individualized education student harms another student or school employee.

However, the policy placed on the school board agenda Tuesday authorized staff to use such force on students exhibiting “unpredicted, spontaneous behavior.”

“If the school board is going to have a policy, it cannot be vague in language,” said Jennifer Karls, president of the Bellevue Special Needs PTA.

In addition to the words “unpredicted” and “spontaneous,” Karls questioned the vagueness of “District staff” and whether this meant all members of the school system’s staff. She also expressed concerns about the examples of restraint devices laid out in the school policy, taken from the definition in the state law.

“If my daughter walked into this room, she may get upset,” Karls said. “I know that could happen because she’s walking into a room full of people she doesn’t know. I can predict that. If you see her walk in here (and) she begins to exhibit a strange behavior, you may see that as threatening. Because you don’t know what to expect. You couldn’t predict that would happen. You may feel the need to protect yourself and not realize that, given the right intervention, she would be able to calm down.”

Katherine George, a special education attorney working with Washington Autism Alliance and Advocacy, suggested adding qualifying language to apply only to unpredicted, spontaneous behavior that resulted in a clear and present danger of serious harm to students, staff, property or serious disruption to the learning process.


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