Our Views: Seclusion a tool to be used sparingly

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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Every school district should fear the kind of complaint posted onto Facebook last week by a Milton mother regarding a principal's use of seclusion to discipline a first-grader.

Regardless of whether the Milton West Elementary principal was justified in placing the first-grader in a former storage closet, the incident made a public-relations mess. It doesn't help that the district is limited to what it can say about the incident, reportedly over the first-grader's refusal to relinquish a handful of Play-Doh.

Maybe staff could have better handled the situation, but the first-grader's brief time in seclusion doesn't appear as “heinous” as the mother alleges. Police found no reason to open a criminal investigation.

Controversy over school districts' use of seclusion—defined by the state as “involuntary confinement”—isn't new and isn't unique to Milton. Reports of some districts relying too heavily on seclusion and in some cases applying it disproportionately to minorities prompted the Legislature in 2011 to create rules for how schools practice seclusion and restraint. State law also requires districts to report annually to school boards the number of incidents and students involved.

The easiest way for schools to run afoul of the law is to place a student in seclusion when other disciplinary methods would do. The law makes clear seclusion is only for students who present an “imminent risk to the physical safety of the student or others, and it is the least restrictive intervention feasible.”

Long gone are the days when teachers could turn to corporal punishment to deal with students guilty of the worst infractions. Teachers and principals today discipline students at their own risk, and any whiff of overreaction can blow up on social media like happened in Milton.

It's unfortunate schools need seclusion rooms, but they have few other options for addressing extreme behavior, except to call the police, which they sometimes do. The unacceptable alternative is to allow the most dangerous, disruptive behavior to take over classrooms, infringing on the rights of other students who want to learn.

The best way to avoid the kind of ordeal afflicting Milton is for school districts to have policies for de-escalating situations before they require restraint or seclusion. This is sometimes easier said than done, especially when some students don't respond to incentives and disincentives. These students often have unstable home lives or medical conditions, such as attention deficit disorder, that make them prone to lashing out and fighting with authority.

A review of any school districts' statistics shows only a small fraction of the student body accounts for seclusion's use. When staff is called to isolate a student, there's a good chance this student has a long history of running afoul of fundamental rules of behavior. It's important to remember these students—regardless of their disabilities and economic disadvantages —can sap significant school resources. It's one of those inconvenient truths of public education.

Of course educators can mistakes, but parents shouldn't try to take away the few remaining tools that districts have to maintain the integrity of learning environments. While seclusion should be used sparingly, it's sometimes necessary.

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