ctnewsjunkie file photo
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (ctnewsjunkie file photo)

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Chris Murphy introduced legislation Wednesday to strictly limit schools from physical restraining students and prohibit schools from placing students in seclusion.

The “Keeping All Students Safe Act” is needed, he says, to protect students from the dangers of seclusion and restraint pointed to in a 2009 Government Accountability Office investigation that found hundreds of incidents of child abuse in schools as a result of seclusion and restraint practices that disproportionately impacted children with disabilities and children of color.

“It’s barbaric for schools to confine students alone in locked rooms, or to use abusive methods to restrain little children. Treating school kids this way should not be tolerated in America. Period,” Murphy said in a press statement. “Our bill would establish strong federal standards to keep students safe, while giving school staff alternatives to respond to challenging situations in the right way. I look forward to working with students and advocates to advance this important piece of legislation.”

The misuse of physical restraints and seclusion against children is not new. In fact, 20 years ago the death of 11-year-old Andrew McClain of Bridgeport, Conn., sparked a crusade to end such practices in mental hospitals.

McClain suffocated March 22, 1998, after two mental health workers at a Portland, Conn., psychiatric hospital wrestled the child to the floor and restrained him. His death prompted Connecticut’s congressional delegation to introduce legislation the following year calling for a ban on the inappropriate use of restraints in mental hospitals.

“This 11-year-old boy was 4-feet, 6-inches tall and weighed 90 pounds,” then-Senator Chris Dodd said at the time. “He was held down by two staff members in a disagreement over where he would sit for breakfast. They sat on his chest and he died.”

GAO investigators released a report at the time confirming that misuse of restraint and seclusion in psychiatric institutions caused more than 140 deaths over the preceding decade in the United States including two dozen in 1999.

Ahead of Congressional action, the Clinton administration adopted new regulations in 1999 to ban the use of restraints unless a doctor certifies that restraints are needed to ensure the safety of the patient or other patients. They would apply to any acute care, psychiatric, rehabilitation, long-term and children’s hospitals that participate in Medicare or Medicaid programs.

Then-Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala also pledged at the time to see if it is feasible to extend the same protections to residential care facilities for children and other providers by the end of the year. She is among the newly elected members to the House this year, representing a district in Miami-Dade County, Florida.

In October 2000, Clinton signed into law legislation that included a codification of the restraint ban sought by the Connecticut delegation and others

Less than a decade later, Dodd sought legislation to expand the 2000 law to include schools – something that the state of Connecticut approved in 2007 but that had not adopted by about 40 percent of states by 2009, according to a report released at the time by the National Disability Rights Network.

Three Wilton women urged Congress to enact legislation to protect disabled children from abusive seclusion and restraint practices in public schools at a press conference on Capitol Hill in January 2009. Gloria Bass, Maryann Lombardi and Jill Ely choked up Tuesday as they described their experiences in the Wilton school system that led to Connecticut enacting its 2007 law.

Dodd said at the time that he regretted having not included schools in the 2000 legislation and had sought legislation in 2008 to add schools to the restraint ban but the legislation was not approved. He vowed to try again in 2009.

“I didn’t add the word ‘school’ to the bill. I regret that,” he said then.

Murphy is co-sponsoring legislation with Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee. Representatives Don Beyer and Bobby Scott, both Virginia Democrats, are introducing the same bill in the House.

The legislation would make it illegal for any school receiving taxpayer dollars to seclude children, and would also limit the use of physical restraint to instances when it is necessary for the safety of students and teachers. The bill would establish minimum safety standards in schools, require states to monitor the law’s implementation, and increase transparency and oversight to prevent future abuse of students.

“While it is encouraging that some states have begun to prohibit or limit the use of seclusion and restraint, it is important that Congress pass the Keeping All Students Safe Act, which would establish a nationwide minimum safety standard. Moreover, this legislation would provide states and teachers the support they need to improve their schools’ culture by using only evidence-based interventions,” Scott said in a press statement.