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It's legal to restrain and seclude students in Michigan, but maybe not for much longer

Oct 26, 2015

Nicole Plater documents her son's injuries in a thick binder.
Credit Gabrielle Emanuel / Michigan Radio

UPDATED on 10-27-15 at 9:00 am  

In the mid-afternoon, Nicole Plater stands by the front door of her gray-blue mobile home in Wixom. She’s watching for her son’s school bus.

Andy is 11 years old and recently started at a new school.

“He's been, you know, not getting injured at the new school,” Plater says. “I’m so excited and he’s actually happy there.”

Andy has autism and is non-verbal, but as he jumps off the bus he's humming a little tune.

Plater says Andy didn’t always look so happy when he got off the bus. He’d often arrive home with injuries.

Andy is one of more than a quarter million students in the U.S. who are restrained or secluded each year by their teachers. Sometimes this means the teacher physically holds down a student who's out of control. Other times, it means a disruptive child is put in a closet-like room.

In Michigan schools, this is entirely legal – but maybe not for much longer.

A state task force starts meeting this week to look into the use of restraint and seclusion in special education classrooms.

It took Nicole Plater four years to figure out why her son was coming home with injuries.

“He would come home with marks on his arm, hand print marks on his arm,” says Plater. “He has come home with his face all torn up on the side.”

One day, he had a black eye. Another day, he came home with a missing tooth.

Andy didn't have the words to say what had happened. And the school told Plater nothing was wrong or that Andy was doing it to himself.

At a loss for what to do, Plater started documenting the injures. She has binders full of injury pictures and doctors' notes.

Plus, she has about 50 gigabytes of video. She'd record Andy every morning before getting on the bus, to prove he wasn't injured. And then she’d videotape him getting off the bus and as she checked him for bruises and cuts.

“It was horrible that I had to do that, but I had to do that for a long time,” says Plater.

Eventually, Plater got a psychologist, a social worker, and a lawyer involved. She found out that her son was being physically restrained by his teachers. They were using a chair with straps to hold him still.

Plater says that was happening multiple times every day.

Recalling the recent memory, Plater shakes her head. “That’s not okay. It’s not okay.”

The district, Huron Valley Schools, declined to comment. But the practice of restraining students is legal.

“Right now, in Michigan anyway, it's semi-anarchy,” says Calvin Luker. He has represented people with disabilities for 25 years, and worked with Nicole Plater.

Luker says in some settings – like psychiatric facilities, nursing homes, and large foster homes – there are laws to regulate restraint and seclusion.

“When you go to the hospital you have laws, rules, policies, regulations,” Luker says.

But in schools in Michigan, there are no rules.

Many other states, including all the states surrounding Michigan, have laws regulating restraint and seclusion. In 2006, Michigan's State Board of Education did pass a voluntary policy that suggests limiting the use of restraint and seclusion. However, this is not enforceable by law. 

Unlike other states, Michigan doesn't require schools to report when a student is restrained or secluded. They don't even have to tell the parents.

“They may never know,” says Luker.

This makes it hard to gauge how often it happens.

However, national statistics for a recent school year suggest about a quarter of a million students are restrained or secluded –  often African American kids, and mostly students in special education classrooms.

Mary Bouwense taught special education in Grand Rapids for 30 years. 

“Restraints, we probably did, maybe once every couple weeks,” says Bouwense, who now serves as president of the Grand Rapids Education Association.

She feels like restraint and seclusion are necessary for safety, and valuable for teaching self-control.

“It’s a tool to be used in certain circumstances,” says Bouwense.

Bouwense argues that restraint and seclusion should never be used as punishment or without training. But when the teacher knows the student, she says a restraint hold could be compared to a big hug.

“You could tell when they started to relax. You could hum. You could rock,” Bouwense says.

She doesn’t think lawmakers need to regulate this.

“I think they need to let teachers do their job,” Bouwense says.

She worries that if a teacher’s ability to use restraint and seclusion is limited, then more students will be hurt and more property will be damaged.

Bouwense sits on the state task force that's looking into the use of restraint and seclusion in special education classrooms. Its first meeting is Tuesday afternoon. It is expected to make policy recommendations by the end of the year.

The Special Education Reform Task Force meets from 4-5 p.m. in Governor Snyder's office in Lansing. It is not open to the public.

UPDATE: This story was updated to include a reference to the 2006 voluntary policy passed by Michigan's State Board of Education.