Daily Herald Media
Wausau School District teachers and other educators physically restrained or put students in seclusion or both 408 times in the 2012-13 school year.
It’s an eye-popping number and means that an educator used physical force on a child or isolated a student in Wausau’s public schools an average of about two times each day during the school year. Grabbing and holding a child or putting a child in a place apart from other students are actions of last resort, but those students were a danger to themselves or other students and had to be restrained, district officials said.
The number also is stark because it is the first time it has officially been compiled, and it’s impossible to determine whether the school district is using force on students more or less over a period of time. The district is ahead of neighboring school districts in its reporting of seclusion and restraint incidents, so the Wausau numbers cannot yet be compared with neighboring districts.
The Wausau School District is the first large district in north central Wisconsin to complete a new seclusion and restraint report, required of all Wisconsin public school districts. A state law that went into effect Sept. 1 requires all districts to compile annual reports that detail the numbers and circumstances of each seclusion and restraint incident. The report for the 2012-13 school year is required to be filed with the Department of Public Instruction by Sept. 1. Administrators for the Mosinee, Merrill and D.C. Everest school districts say they are compiling their reports and numbers won’t be available for a few weeks.
The vast majority of the Wausau School District’s incidents of seclusion and/or restraint occurred with elementary-age students with a variety of disabilities, said Tammy Nyen, the district’s director of special education. The report shows only 63 students were involved in the 408 incidents and 50 of those students received special education services.
“A lot of these incidents were tied to mental illness, tied to so many things,” Nyen said. “Some students have disabilities in which they have a limited understanding of safety and the safety issues in their environment. They may pose a threat to themselves.”
Nyen, who helped form the law through her involvement with the Wisconsin Council of Administrators of Special Services, said the new regulations were forged over a few years. The end result is a law that pulls a cloak away from a part of education that largely had been hidden from the general public.
“This law protects the kids, protects schools, protects the parents and the teachers,” Nyen said.
Wausau School District seclusion and restraintBy the numbers
408 — The total number of seclusion, restraint or both incidents in the Wausau School District during the 2012-13 school year.
63 — The number of students subject to seclusion, restraint or both.
50 — The number of those students who received special education services.
40 — The number of incidents with students who were of middle school or high school age.
368 — The number of incidents with students of prekindergarten and elementary age.
Source: Wausau School District
“Too many kids were being subject to seclusion and restraint,” said Monica Murphy, an attorney with Disability Rights Wisconsin. “We reported on one little girl who was restrained after blowing bubbles in her milk, and she died in the restraint (because she couldn’t breathe). That’s one of the more tragic stories.”
One important factor of the law is that it requires schools to notify parents of an incident within a day of the incident, Murphy said. Before the law, some districts did not inform parents when a child was restrained.
“Parents had no ability to try and stop it from happening,” she said. “Parents need to know what’s going on.”
Murphy said her agency and others will use the reports to see how school districts across the state respond to the new law.
“I think it raises consciousness,” Murphy said. “(But) I don’t think the numbers are a sufficient basis. ... You do have to dig a little deeper. I don’t think the numbers alone will tell the whole stories.”
The law also stipulates that no school staff member can use seclusion or restraint unless he or she has received training on methods preventing the need for restraint, instruction and description of the behavior of the student and how to use restraint. How students can be secluded is detailed as well.
Nyen said the Wausau School District has taken a “cautious” approach to reporting, meaning that she would rather see teachers over-report incidents than under-report. For instance, if a student is pulling his hair out and a teacher physically stops him, Nyen wants that teacher to fill out an incident report. Other examples include stopping a student from running into a parking lot after school, or pulling apart two students who are fighting.
“We want to make sure that we are following the law,” Nyen said. “We want to make sure we’re keeping students safe, and offering what we can for students. We need to educate staff, educate families to do whatever we can to ensure students’ success.”