Source: KDE | Illustration by Boris Ladwig

The use of physical restraints to control students is increasing across Kentucky, although the state legislature since 2012 has tried to reduce the practice because it is ineffective and harms children, especially those with disabilities.

Between 2014 and 2017, the number of occasions during which public school staff physically restrained students because they posed a danger to themselves or others increased by 42 percent across the state — though state officials said they believe the numbers are increasing primarily because school districts are doing a better job reporting them.

The number of incidents in which Jefferson County Public Schools staff used restraints increased 82 percent between 2014 and 2017, in part because the district failed to accurately report the data in previous years.

The inaccurate reporting by JCPS prompted the state to launch an investigation that ultimately escalated into a full-blown management audit and, in April, to the state’s interim commissioner of education recommending that the state take over the district because of ineffective management.

JCPS personnel used physical restraints on 4,239 occasions in 2017, up 1,910 compared to the 2,329 occasions the district reported for 2014, according to data from the Kentucky Department of Education.

In his audit report, interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis wrote that “the JCPS organizational structure impedes the district’s ability to model and deliver an appropriate, districtwide approach to its most significant need — that of behavior supports and student discipline. The results are significant violations of the (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and (state law that governs) the use of physical restraint and seclusion in public schools.”

The district told Insider this week that the restraint incident increase is a result of the district’s failure in previous years to report data accurately. JCPS also said that district leaders had implemented a corrective action plan to address the state’s concerns.

Susan Weston, who recently analyzed JCPS data for the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, said that the high level of restraint use within JCPS is “a reason for genuine concern.”

In the fall, Stephen Pruitt, then the state’s education commissioner, had taken the rare step of demanding from JCPS leaders that they take immediate actions to correct violations of law, including a state law that addresses the use of physical restraints and seclusion in public schools.

At the time, Pruitt in a letter wrote that the state had uncovered “a significant lack of understanding throughout the district regarding … use of physical restraints … (and) unnecessary use of physical restraints and seclusions where the student’s behavior did not pose an imminent danger.”

Per JCPS policy, physical restraints can be used only when student behavior poses an imminent danger of physical harm to self or others in clearly unavoidable emergency circumstances.

Failure to accurately report

JCPS spokeswoman Allison Martin told Insider this week that the district’s reported incidents of restraints had increased because district staff previously entered the information into a district database — but frequently failed to also log the information in the state’s database, which led to significant discrepancies between the actual number of restraint uses and the number about which the state was notified.

The district uncovered the discrepancy in 2016 after a public records request from the Courier Journal. Martin said that since then the district has shut down the JCPS-developed database and now reports only to the state.

The KDE, too, said the increase at JCPS is, at least in part, a result of improved reporting.

But incidents have gone up across the state, despite the state adopting a law in 2012 to curb the use of physical restraints. At the time, the KDE said that restraints “can cause serious injuries and even result in death.”

Kentucky had no statewide regulations regarding restraints at the time, which had left “Kentucky children vulnerable to the misuse and abuse of these interventions and at risk for continued injuries and even death,” the KDE said in a report.

“The evidence is,” the KDE said, “restraint and seclusion are ineffective behavior modification techniques that have potentially deadly consequences. The evidence is equally clear that reducing or eliminating restraint and seclusion produces positive outcomes for students, staff, and schools.”

However, last year, the state’s school districts, excluding JCPS, reported using restraints on 3,631 occasions, up more than 1,000, or 42 percent, since 2014, and education experts suspect that actual numbers are probably higher.

In Fayette County Public Schools, the state’s second-largest district, restraint incidents doubled from 2016 to 2017. FCPS could not be immediately reached for comment.

The KDE told Insider via e-mail that “numbers are increasing due to better training for district staff and an increased vigilance on proper reporting.”

For example, the department said that between 2016 and 2017 the number of students involved in restraint or seclusion incidents jumped by 38 percent — but the number of districts that reported such incidents jumped by 46 percent, from 72 districts in 2016 to 105 districts in 2017.

The department also said that it has provided more guidance to districts on how to properly report the incidents.

“What may have been identified by staff as one incident in the past is now being identified appropriately as multiple behavior resolutions during an elongated behavior event,” the KDE said. “The districts have worked hard to improve their training and data reporting, and have worked closely with KDE to analyze the data and use it to identify areas that may need additional resources and training.

“The data is intended to make the individualized program better for the student,” the department said. “So more incident reports may help develop a better understanding of triggers, antecedent behavior and positive redirection that worked. All this is to better serve the student not to punish districts, schools or staff members for reporting it.”

‘Individualized response’

Reported incidents of restraint use at JCPS, at 4,239, account for more than half the reported incidents in the state, 7,870. In other words, while JCPS has 14.7 percent of the state’s students, it accounts for nearly 54 percent of the state’s reported incidents of restraint use.

In 2015/16, about three-quarters of the JCPS students who were restrained had a disability, according to data released this year by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

However, the KDE cautioned against district-to-district comparisons and “against making negative assumptions based on numbers alone” because the uses of restraints represent “an individualized response to crisis.”

“For instance, the highest totals for the last three years in JCPS have come from Binet School,” the KDE said. “Yet if you dive into the data you find that a nonverbal, self-injurious student might have been physically restrained 10 times on a Monday but nine of those were one-minute transport restraints using the extended arm transport (least restrictive restraint) to guide the student to a safe location so he/she can cool down.

“Looking at the macro view of that data doesn’t provide the whole story,” the KDE said. “They are individualized situations that cannot be judged against other individualized situations.”

Martin said that JCPS has implemented corrective action including updating procedures, conducting more training and hiring staff.

Allison Martin

She also said that JCPS faces challenges that other districts do not. For example, the Binet School, which focuses on serving students with disabilities, has 71 students, or 0.07 percent of the district’s total student body, yet accounts for 369 restraints, or 8.7 percent of the district total. Thirty-nine Binet students in total were restrained last year, meaning that each of those students was restrained an average 9.5 times over the year.

KDE data also show that each of the school’s 71 students was involved in a restraint or seclusion event or an in-school removal in 2017.

JCPS “provides unique classroom settings and opportunities for students with severe physical or mental disabilities, and those include educational environments such as Waller Williams, Churchill Park and the Binet School, and those schools currently account for 21 percent of the restraints in the district,” Martin said.

In addition, she said, 1,121 students, or about 1.2 percent of total students, account for 100 percent of the district’s 4,239 restraint uses, which indicates to the district that a few students are having repeated behavior issues.

KDE agreed, saying that “JCPS has more specialized educational settings/schools for students who have specialized needs.”

“Connected to that, families who have children who have specialized needs often seek out districts like JCPS so they can enroll their children in these special schools,” the department said. “In contrast, in smaller districts, you may have one child with similar special needs enrolled.”

Susan Weston

However, Weston, a former consultant to the U.S. Department of Education, said, that the district’s unique position cannot explain the significant disparity between JCPS and the rest of the state.

Students within JCPS are restrained at about five times the rate of other Kentucky students, KDE data show.

Both the KDE and JCPS said they expect restraint numbers for the just concluded school year to be about the same as in 2016/17. The 2017/18 data are expected to be available this fall.

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Boris Ladwig
Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.