Opinion: Closing restraint loophole for students with disabilities or inviting discipline fallback

Staff File Photo by Robin Rudd / Cleveland High School senior Esther Proctor, center, explains some of the engineering lap projects that have aided people with disabilities to Gov. Bill Lee, left, and others on a tour to see what teachers and students were doing to prepare students for career, college, and life readiness on Jan. 7, 2020.

The image of a child with disabilities being shackled to prevent them from harming themselves or others sounds like an image one might see in a 19th-century illustration. But that reality soon will be debated in the Tennessee General Assembly.

State Rep. Greg Martin, R-Hixson, at the request of Hamilton County Board of Education attorney Scott Bennett, has introduced a bill that would allow the mechanical restraint of special education students by a trained and certified school resource officer, school security officer or other law enforcement officer in an emergency situation.

The bill is sponsored in the state Senate by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson.

Martin said the bill allows only trained officers to restrain these students "in the same manner that a school resource officer or other law enforcement officers are permitted to restrain students in a similar emergency situation."

"No one wants to see any student placed in restraints," he said in a statement to this page, "but unfortunately there are situations where it may be necessary in order to ensure everyone's safety. This bill simply helps the school system to continue to serve and protect our most vulnerable children when an emergency situation arises."

A spokesman for Hamilton County Schools indicated the bill grew out of a single case.

"This bill is in response to a rare case and closes a loophole in the state law," Steve Doremus wrote in an email to this page. "In the 18 months that we have employed SSOs (school security officers), only one incident of this nature has occurred. The restraint authorized in this bill should be considered as a last resort, and it exists only to protect students in these rare occurrences."

Because of the frequency of discipline of students with disabilities -- in Hamilton County Schools in the 2021-2022 school year, 14.3% of students with disabilities were disciplined but only 10.4% of all students -- this would be a red flag for us if it didn't rise out of a single situation. Since Martin and school officials say it would only be used by trained officers and only in the case of an emergency, we see some justification.

However, we do worry that, if approved, it might too quickly become a fallback way of discipline in cases that, should restraints be used, then would be called emergencies.

The bill itself, though, seems to align closely with federal and state guidance on the use of restraints on students with disabilities.

In a 2012 letter, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights wrote that the department recommended "that school districts never use mechanical restraint [on students with disabilities], that school districts never use physical restraint or seclusion for disciplinary purposes, and that trained school officials should use physical restraint or seclusion only if a child's behavior poses imminent danger of serious physical harm to self or others."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a "What Can You Do?" section on its website, instructs parents: "Know that your child's school must treat your child with dignity. Your child should not be punished by being mistreated, restrained or secluded."

Current Tennessee Department of Education policy says "mechanical and chemical restraints" on students with disabilities "are never allowable. Mechanical restraint means the application of a mechanical device, material or equipment attached or adjacent to the student's body, including ambulatory restraints, which the student cannot easily remove and that restricts freedom of movement or normal access to the student's body."

It further states -- with four exceptions -- "the only allowable type of restraint within schools is 'physical holding restraint,' defined as 'the use of body contact by school personnel with a student to restrict freedom of movement or normal access to the student's body.'"

Martin seemed nonplussed about any opposition to the bill that might be mounted.

"People can always misunderstand your intentions," he said.

The Tennessee School Board Association did not answer a query as to whether it supported the restraints bill.

Bennett also did not return a call asking to clarify questions about the bill.

Doremus, the school district spokesman, said, "Hamilton County Schools is committed to school environments that value every student and create a sense of belonging. As part of that commitment, we believe in the need to increase our Tier 1 (all students) supports to reduce the use of restraint for any student in the district. You will see that reflected in our coming [fiscal year 2024] budget."

In our litigious society, a single case involving the restraint of a student with disabilities apparently has brought about the potential closing of a loophole in Tennessee law. Whether the closing of that loophole would open more opportunities to discipline a proportionately overdisciplined population cannot be known. We hope not.

If Martin's bill moves forward, we hope it does so only after a thorough examination of all federal, state and local laws about students with disabilities. And then that such restraints are only used, as sponsors suggest, in dire emergencies.