Texas educators forcibly pinned down students with disabilities as many times in 2009 as they did in 2008, despite efforts to curb the practice in public schools.
The static numbers hide dramatic drops in restraints in many large school districts. Because many smaller school districts reported restraints for the first time in 2009, statewide numbers remained virtually unchanged.
School districts like Leander and Garland, which had some of the most restraints in 2008, cut their numbers in half in 2009, according to data collected by the Texas Education Agency (TEA). But some tiny school districts reported dozens of restraints, even when they had just a few disabled students.
Of the 10 school districts that reported the most restraints of disabled students in 2008, all but one saw fewer restraints in 2009. The Northside school district in San Antonio reported 1,604 restraints in 2009 — up almost 13 percent from the previous year. Meanwhile, Leander’s restraints dropped by 55 percent. Austin’s fell by 22 percent. And Garland more than halved its restraints.
Some school districts that didn’t make the top 10 in 2008 crept in during 2009. Fort Worth had 294 restraints in 2009, up 84 percent from 2008. Richardson’s restraints rose 40 percent, to 265.
Advocates for children with disabilities say it’s a good sign that restraints appear to be dropping in many large school districts — though they question whether the practice is being phased out, or whether districts have simply changed their reporting method.
“If there are some drops, I think it’s entirely random,” said Steve Elliot, an attorney who reviews school districts restraints for the non-profit Advocacy, Inc. “There is no evidence the state has been doing anything about it.”
And they say restraints, which are dangerous and are supposed to be used only as a last resort, are still far too prevalent in Texas schools. In both 2008 and 2009, Texas educators restrained students with disabilities roughly 18,000 times a year — an average of 100 times a day. In some cases, the children were injured, suffering everything from bruises and black eyes to broken bones.
TEA officials attribute the drop in restraints in large districts and the increased reporting in small districts to the same factor: their focus on the issue.
“We have put a lot of attention on these numbers, nationally and across the state,” said Kathy Clayton, state director of special education. “We have talked a lot about the importance of looking really closely at how they are reporting the data.”
School districts that saw their restraint numbers drop attributed the change to a combination of factors: efforts to use behavioral methods to calm students down, and clearer rules on when teachers must report classroom restraints. Some district officials, like those in Leander, said they had been over-reporting restraints in previous years. Austin officials attribute their drop to the hiring of a full-time student aggression specialist, who emphasizes calming unruly students without getting physical.
In Fort Worth, officials said restraint numbers rose because administrators did a better job reporting them — not because there were more incidents in 2009 than in 2008.
"We've done a much better job within the last year and a half in training administrators and teachers on what incidents of restraint need to be reported," said Mariagrazia Sheffield, the district's executive director for special education. "We're getting a more accurate report of the actual incidents."
Northside ISD in San Antonio, which had more restraints than any other school district in both 2008 and 2009, saw its numbers rise slightly last school year. Don Schmidt, the district’s assistant superintendent, said restraints probably grew in 2009 because the student body population continues to swell. He said it’s also possible that a handful of the district’s most aggressive students with disabilities accounted for most of the additional restraints.
“We’ve had a 22-year-old autistic kid who has gone ballistic on the bus several different times, who has swung at employees,” Schmidt said, speaking from a special education conference in Fort Worth. “One particular child can really cause it to go up over a period of time.”
Clayton said the TEA is giving school districts better tools to combat restraints, which, by statute, are only to be used in emergencies. The agency has provided better data collection, so districts can track their own restraint trends. It has also provided guidance on behavioral alternatives to physical pin-downs.
But Advocacy’s Elliot said the reality is that academics and disability experts are the ones approaching school districts about reducing restraints — and that the TEA’s role has been minimal.
“Any reduction is related to the academics out convincing districts,” Elliot said, “and they’re not necessarily affiliated with the TEA.”