Informal data from the 2022-23 school year show that while the overall incidence of the use of restraint on students in Howard County public schools has decreased, more than two-thirds of the time the practice involves a Black student, according to Caroline Walker, executive director of program innovation and student well-being in the school system.
Only about 25% of county public school students are Black, Walker said.
Specially trained school system staff may restrain a student as a form of behavior intervention, and most cases when a restraint is deemed necessary affect special education elementary school students, she said. Less than 1% of the total student population is restrained in any given year.
According to the Maryland State Department of Education, physical restraint only should be used in a crisis situation, when it is necessary to protect the student or other individual from imminent, serious physical harm and other, less intrusive, nonphysical interventions have failed or been determined to be inappropriate for the student. The parameters of physical restraint are defined in the Annotated Code of Maryland.
Sixty-five of the 108 students physically restrained during the 2021-22 school year in Howard County were Black, according to data submitted by the school system to the Maryland State Department of Education. There were 645 total incidents of restraint that school year and the majority of those restrained were ages 5-10.
In the 2022-23 school year, roughly 90% of incidents of restraint happened in elementary schools, and 80% of involved students with an individualized education plan, Walker said.
An individualized education plan is a crafted program for students with a disability who receive special education and related services as guided by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act.
About 10% of the county public school student population has an IEP, Walker said.
Walker presented informal information about student restraint to the county Board of Education on Sept. 7 and said that official data for last school year is not yet available. It should be ready by December and will be presented to the school board in the spring, she said.
Board Chair Antonia Watts said discipline policy remains a top priority for the school board.
“We are very, very clear that this is our priority,” Watts said. “We have an agreement with the superintendent on five priorities, and this is one of them.”
The fact that Black boys are disproportionately restrained in the county is not acceptable, school board member Robyn Scates said.
“There’s clearly a diversity and equity issue,” Scates said.
Howard is among the jurisdictions with the highest number of restraints per student in the state, which Walker said is partly because the county public schools have a relatively low threshold for what is counted as a restraint.
Only certified faculty may ever use restraint. Those staff members must take a 1 1/2-day course to earn their safety care training certification, as well as an annual refresher course to stay certified.
Director of Special Education Janice Yetter said the course focuses on de-escalation, with only about 10% of the training involving physical intervention for when verbal strategies are not effective. Certified staff must also pass a physical competency test.
During the public forum portion of the school board meeting Sept. 7, five speakers criticized Policy 9400, the behavior intervention policy that details proper use of restraint.
Jeannie-Marie Leoutsakos, of Ellicott City, who leads a community workgroup on restraint and seclusion, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University affiliated with the Department of Mental Health, said restraint is likely to cause injury to students, and although it may be acceptable in rare cases, more than 100 annual restraint incidents is not acceptable. She urged stakeholders to talk to adults who were restrained as kids.
“You can have this happen to you one time in your life,” Leoutsakos said with emotion. “It will stay with you forever.”
Rebecca Mestas, a parent and member of a restraint work group, said restraint is undignified and she would like the school system to implement more policies detailing what happens before a restraint occurs.
“Any time a student is subjected to [restraint], we have failed to follow through with the promise of a safe environment for all students,” Mestas said.
Dianne Henry, a special education advocate from Columbia, said that it is unacceptable that only a fraction of county funds that are directed to be spent on restraint alternatives were used.
“The system is broken and irreparably harming our most vulnerable students,” Henry said. “We need a top-to-bottom overhaul of how HCPSS approaches disruptive behavior, particularly with disabled students. I urged the Board of Education to invest in stopping the downward spiral of special education services.”
All funds allocated for de-escalation and restraint alternatives were not spent because they were supplemented with grant funding, Walker said.
“Rest assured, we do not lack for funding,” Walker said, “and we do not lack for the effort and energy around making this better.”
One trauma-informed alternative to physical restraint employed by county public schools is Ukeru, a method of blocking students experiencing crises using cushioned, shield-like devices. A pilot program evaluation presented in June 2022 showed Ukeru to be effective in reducing the use of restraint. Implementation began at all non-high school regional programs in fall 2022.
The county operates 10 regional programs for nearly 100 students with emotional disabilities across all school levels. Students in the programs may spend time in general education classrooms or in their own separate spaces, depending on their individualized education plan.
Ukeru is works well for some students but not in all cases, Walker said.
“I do think that really does speak to the reason that education is individualized for students with disabilities,” Walker said, “that some things work well with some students and some things do not.”
Walker said she and members of her team have met with the Maryland Department of Education to discuss alternatives to restraint and the possible phaseout of restraint use, but she worries that an instance would arise where restraint is necessary.
Howard County Times: Top stories
“It will be important for us to continue to refine and improve this process,” Walker said. “It is absolutely not something we want to have happen to children, so we want to make sure that we have exhaust all other mechanisms, all other pieces, and all other professional learning that we can put in place so that it doesn’t happen. At the same time, if a child is walking toward the road I do want someone to stop them.”
The board made no motions or policy decisions during the Sept. 7 meeting. Scates said school system staff have already been directed to address the issue of restraint use and the associated racial disparity.
In November 2021, the Howard Board of Education banned seclusion in all county schools. In April 2022, the Maryland General Assembly outlawed the practice in public schools, while also limiting the use of physical restraint, defined as “a personal restriction that immobilizes a student” or reduces their ability to move freely.
Advocacy groups such as the Maryland-based Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint argue that rather than effectively disciplining students, these practices can lead to significant trauma and injuries, while also impacting students of color and individuals with special needs at disproportionate rates.
“Both disability awareness and disability knowledge is important as well as embedding equity practices here,” Walker said, “and yet our data is terrible, and we need to acknowledge that as well.”