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By Beth Tolley

On Aug. 22, regulations on the use of seclusion and restraint in public elementary and secondary schools in the Commonwealth of Virginia were finalized, with an implementation date of Jan. 1. Virginia now has regulations that legitimize practices that are ineffective, cruel and harmful.

For those unfamiliar with restraint and seclusion, here are the definitions:

Restraint is a personal restriction that immobilizes or reduces the ability of a student to move his or her torso, arms, legs, or head freely. Seclusion is the involuntary confinement of a student alone in a room or area from which the student is physically prevented from leaving.

These regulations make it perfectly acceptable to restrain or seclude students if the requirements set forth in the regulations are met.  Five years in the making, advocates were sharply divided about making comments during the 30-day public comment period prior to finalization. Those who had worked so hard to get regulations in place feared that they would be delayed or derailed by comments. Other advocates felt that the regulations didn’t provide enough protection to make a substantial impact.

In the end there were no comments submitted. Many advocates recognized the futility of comments that would be addressed by the same agency (Virginia Department of Education) that ignored 123 public comments last year. Both groups of advocates agreed that there were serious flaws in the regulations which would likely not be “fixed” through additional revisions; legislation with the force of law rather than regulations is necessary. 

During the past 20 years, studies have been done by federal agencies, professional organizations and national research institutions. The research indicates that use of these procedures does not keep students and teachers safer, it in fact makes them less safe. Physical injuries up to and including death have occurred. Restraint and seclusion have no therapeutic or educational value. They are traumatizing for the students subjected to these procedures, to the adults administering them and to the children and adults observing their use.

Restraint and seclusion are used in general education and special education schools and settings. They are used in schools where students’ behaviors are framed as choices, where school cultures emphasize compliance, but school leaders and staff do not differentiate between voluntary and involuntary stress (fight, flight, freeze) behaviors. Failing to differentiate between voluntary and involuntary behaviors results in punishment of students when they need support and compassion.

One of the most important findings from brain, trauma, neuroscience and attachment research during the past 30 years is the recognition of the role unconscious detection of danger, stress and fear play in disruptive behaviors. Unconscious detection of real or perceived danger by the brain’s regulatory systems shift the brain state to survival mode, setting off a flight, fight or freeze response.

These stress responses are neither voluntary or responsive to a system of rewards and consequences, features all too common in school “behavior management” systems. The brains of children with trauma histories, mental health concerns, neurodiversity and/or developmental delays are highly sensitized to cues of danger. The lack of differentiation between voluntary behaviors and stress responses may be the biggest factor in the huge disproportionality of students with disabilities who are restrained and secluded.

Use of restraint and seclusion reflect a culture that has not moved into the 21st century, a culture and mindset that holds students accountable for fear-based non-volitional behaviors.  Furthermore, schools that use these procedures most likely do not recognize the role of the adults in creating or escalating students’ fear and subsequent stress responses. As Ron Garrison, former special education teacher and legal expert states, “we have to remember that restraint and seclusion are not legitimate interventions; they are forms of torture. They specifically destroy what you need to be building up: safety, trusting relationships and autonomy.” 

It is incumbent upon teacher and administrator organizations, as well as state departments of education to prioritize education of all educational personnel in the areas of brain development including the impact of toxic stress and trauma; trauma and resilience; state dependent functioning; regulation; emotional contagion; power differentials; and true preventative activities (co-regulation; rhythmic repetitive regulatory activities throughout each day, student/teacher collaborative and proactive solutions).

Educational leaders must advocate for school cultures that embrace and support all children, no matter their race, culture, ability or disability.  Schools that have changed their culture and practices to reflect an understanding of the current neuroscience, brain development, child development and trauma science have eliminated the use of restraint and seclusion. And not only has this led to environments that are safer for students and teachers, it has resulted in positive academic results.

It is past time to adopt the Civil Rights Principles for Safe, Healthy, and Inclusive School Climates endorsed by 60 organizations and the 2020 American Bar Association resolution prohibiting the use of restraint and seclusion on students in preschool, primary school, and secondary school. We can and must do better for all our students, teachers and families.

Beth Tolley is the director of educational strategy for the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint. She retired from the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health two years ago, where she was the team leader for monitoring and supervision for the Infant and Toddler Connection of Virginia. She lives in Henrico.