November 27, 2012

Maine teachers say new restraint rule leads to assaults by students

Educators say a new mandate is making them overly cautious, and the instances of teachers being assaulted by students since the rule took effect have been in the 'dozens.'

By Noel K. Gallagher
Staff Writer

A new state rule sharply limiting how teachers can "restrain" students is under attack by several statewide education groups, which say they want it changed to allow more flexibility for teachers who deal with out-of-control students.

The Maine Education Association says there have been "dozens" of instances of teachers being assaulted by students since the rule took effect this fall, although the teachers union did not cite specific cases. It said teachers have been reluctant to touch students because of the rule.

MEA President Lois Kilby-Chesley said the union has heard reports from teachers and administrators throughout the state, including an education technician in the Bangor area who was bitten, scratched and bruised by the student she works with one-on-one. "I wouldn't say that goes with the job," Kilby-Chesley said Monday.

She also said a class in a Portland-area high school was evacuated twice to isolate a disruptive student.

The rule says an educator cannot physically restrain a child except in an emergency. But what constitutes an emergency is unclear, and mandatory training for educators across the state is inconsistent, Kilby-Chesley said.

Mike Cormier, superintendent of the Mount Blue Regional School District in Farmington, said the district has had at least 20 incidents that show the rule isn't working.

n On the first day of the school year, for example, a kindergartner refused to leave the playground.

"They sent five adults out to talk to the child to try to talk them into coming inside," said Cormier, immediate past president of the Maine School Management Association, which is also asking for the rule to be changed. "In the past, they might have just picked up the child."

n In another case, Cormier said, a sixth-grader did $1,000 worth of damage to a school cafeteria by pulling down the blinds. Later that day, the child used a tool to dig a hole in a wall and destroyed a phone.

Cormier said he understands the reason for the rule.

"It's a national issue and a result of tragedies where children have been restrained and they have died," he said. "But sometimes the pendulum swings too far and we need to be more centered."

"I think people thought (the new rule) was going to work, but because people are being so cautious with it, the interpretation is more restrictive than it needs to be," Kilby-Chesley said.

Another problem the Maine Education Association cites is the paperwork and follow-up required whenever "restraint" is used.

A written report must be filed with the district within days and later sent to the state. Parents are notified, witnesses are called and a group is gathered to review what happened and talk about ways to avoid a similar situation.

"We are seeing enormous disruption," Cormier said. "(Educators) don't have time to file all these reports, and they don't want to come back and find they've restrained a child inappropriately."

That has many erring on the side of caution.

"I think the change has caused a lot of people to be fearful, in their positions, to actually touch a student for any reason at all, and sometimes it's necessary," said Sharon Pray, director of student support services for the Portland schools, who oversees the special education and disability programs in Maine's largest school district.

The rule clearly allows for intervention and restraint, she said, but fear is holding educators back.

"I think they are afraid to intervene in cases where, in the past, they felt they could intervene," Pray said. "Not hurting a child, but having the opportunity to lift them up off the floor if they are tantruming in the hallway. You are allowed to do that, but it's considered a restraint."

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