Seattle's Child

Your guide to a kid-friendly city

School isolation restraint washington

Photo by M. Faba / Cuna Plus

Stop student isolation and restraint in schools

Bill continues its move forward in Washington legislature

My son is a young adult now. But neither of us can or will ever forget what happened to him in second grade. It happened in a local public school district that I don’t need to name – because it’s happened in every public school district in Washington State. Thankfully, Washington lawmakers are moving a bill forward in the legislative process this year that would put a stop to it. I, for one, urge them to keep going. I’m calling on lawmakers to ake House Bill 1479 (E2SHB 1479), which was first introduced in 2023, a law that protects vulnerable children. 

What is the ‘it?’

Back to second grade. That year, my 7-year-old autistic son was placed in a padded isolation room, alone and without support, after a frustrated teacher deemed him “too overwhelmed” to be in class. It happened not once but several times. And it might have kept happening if I hadn’t come in early one day to collect him for a doctor’s appointment. Instead of pointing me down the hall to his class,  a sheepish receptionist took me to the isolation room across from the principal’s office. In shock, I looked through the glass in the door at my child sitting alone with a terrified look on his face, rocking himself in the way he did when he felt threatened. 

Countless ways to de-escalate

My son was fairly tall, but he weighed 40 pounds wet at the time. And while he occasionally made agitated outbursts in class (as did all the autistic kids in his self-contained special education classroom), he was not hard to control. At the beginning of each year, we made a point of telling school staff exactly how to ease him off the ledge when he got overwhelmed or upset. Take him to a quiet corner, hug him, sing John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” or Hush Little Baby in his ear. Scratch up and down on his back or arm. 

Teachers need support

It never occurred to me that no one would intervene when an inexperienced instructor serving her first year in the special education department became overwhelmed and lost in the chaos of seven autistic children. She had limited help from paraeducators or aides in the classroom. I can only imagine how difficult it might have been for her to manage behaviors very typical of the spectrum largely alone. 

Still, despite her own overwhelm  — a term and feeling she readily reported to the principal — my son’s teacher never sat for an hour or more in an isolation room. Instead, the principal, and later the head of the district’s special education services, defended the isolation room as a “safe and non-traumatic” way of helping kids calm down. He did not increase her access to supportive aides.

Hurt not help

But here’s the truth: My son was traumatized. As parents, we had never put him in a small room and locked the door. I was traumatized not just by seeing him through that door, but by the realization that the look I often saw on his face at morning drop-off was fear, not a new autism tic.

HB 1479 aims to put a stop to the practice of isolating students and more heavily restrict the use of restraint on students in schools.

The proposal would ban school staff from using the following on students:

  • mechanical restraints like plastic ties and handcuffs
  • chemical restraint like pepper spray
  • corporal punishment
  • isolation or physical restraint “that is contraindicated based on the student’s disability, health care needs, medical or psychiatric condition, as documented in a health care directive or medical management plan, a behavioral intervention plan (BIP), an individualized education program (IEP), or a plan developed under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.”
  • physical restraint
  • physical escort that is life-threatening, restricts breathing, or restricts blood flow to the brain, including prone, supine, and wall restraints
  • noxious spray and other aversive intervention

If the bill is signed into law, no elementary school student would be isolated after 2029 unless staff is directed by a doctor and with parent consent. Further, school staff could isolate a student only if they’ve received crisis training approved by the state. An amendment to the bill stipulates that money must be added to the state budget to cover the costs of staff crisis training. Without it, the measure would be nullified. The current version of the bill passed the first financial hurdle when it was approved by the House Committee on Appropriations. It now sits with the House Rules Committee.

A needed change

The bill texts outline exactly why they are needed: 

According to the E2SHB 1479 bill summary, support for the bill runs along these lines:

“Students are required to go to school, so they should have a safe and supportive school environment where they are truly welcome. Challenging behaviors are a signal that a student is struggling. Currently, staff are injured by students, rooms are torn up, and property is destroyed. However, staff can address these behaviors without isolating students.

Students are not the adversaries of staff. Children may be punished for reacting to being hurt, and the cycle continues. The systems and mindsets that allow isolation of students for their safety or others’ safety is the problem. There is daily impact and harm to students and to educators. There are limited and outdated tools available to staff to respond to students’ behavioral concerns. There is an urgent need to teach students skills to manage their behaviors, which will result in social and academic growth for everyone.”

The report sums up opposition to the bill this way:

“For many schools, these authorized entities are a last resort before a student must be sent out of state to receive an education. Removal of practices that are used as a last resort in a continuum of possible responses will cause more harm. Staff may be harmed even when not attempting to restrain a student—the potential for injury is always there. The effect that the bill will have on student and staff safety should be considered.”

The bill restrictions on physical restraint restrictions are appropriate, but eliminating isolation rooms less than two years from now is problematic. Some students act out and injure others, and then, once the student is isolated, the student has an opportunity to calm down. Some schools might have to wait an hour for law enforcement to arrive. During that time, the school needs to isolate a student to keep others safe. Schools need resources besides training.”

With the passage into law of E2SHB 1479, lawmakers have the power to stop schools from scarring children, perhaps for life. Nowhere is that more important than in special education settings. Don’t these children have enough to struggle with? 

Take action

Let your lawmakers know how you feel about this or any proposed laws. Here’s how:

The damage is real 

You’d be amazed how long an emotional scar can linger. My son is learning to be a self-sufficient adult. He recently moved back home for a short stay and a return to school. Since he arrived, I’ve noticed he forgets to lock the doors at night more often than not. When I asked him about it, I recognized the look in his eyes, which he tried to shrug off. 

“I don’t like locked doors,” was all he said.

Non-traumatizing? Fifteen years later, my son and I beg to differ.

 

More at Seattle’s Child:

Leg 2024: Bill updates and issues of impact to kids

“Tell lawmakers what you want for Washington’s kids.”

About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for NestingInstinctsSeattle.com and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at Compasswriters.com.