Seclusion & Restraint in Schools

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

There is no federal law regulating the physical restraint or unsupervised seclusion of students. This lesson provides an overview of student rights as they pertain to seclusion and restraint.

Federal Law

Let's look at a case sample. A school in Florida repeatedly restrained and secluded a teenage student. As a result, that student was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and placed in a psychiatric facility. An expert testified that the student's psychiatric problems were brought on by the school's actions. However, a court ruled that the school did not act excessively or egregiously toward the student. The student and the student's parents didn't have a legal cause of action against the school.

This is not necessarily an unusual scenario. There is no federal law banning the use of physical restraint or unsupervised seclusion in schools. Many states also don't have laws addressing these controversial practices, leaving school districts to regulate themselves.

As a school administrator, it is important for you to know the laws and regulations of your state as well as your school district's policies. Let's say Florida had a law prohibiting the use of restraint and seclusion against the teenager in the above scenario. The school district could face civil liability, and some administrators might even be subject to criminal prosecution.

Physical Restraint

Let's first examine the use of restraint. Physical restraint is generally defined as imposing any limit on a student's ability to move freely. For example, a teacher might restrain a student by holding that student facedown on the ground. Many schools use mechanical restraints, which include chairs or other devices that students are locked or otherwise secured into. This includes the use of duct tape, rope or ties. Some schools also use chemical restraints, such as pepper spray.

As of 2015, 18 states have laws that first require an emergency situation with a threat of physical danger before restraint can be used on any student. An additional three states have laws that require an emergency situation with a threat of physical danger before restraint can be used on a disabled student. For example, Florida is one of the states providing more stringent protections for disabled students than for other students.

Seventeen states ban the use of mechanical restraints on any student, no matter the situation. Twenty-one states ban the use of mechanical restraints on disabled students. Florida bans all use of restraints that interfere with breathing, but does not limit the use of mechanical or chemical restraints.

Note that any behavioral intervention could be in violation of a disabled student's IEP or 504 plan. These are individualized education plans used for students with disabilities who will receive special education services at school. These legal documents set out the needs of the student and the services the school will provide. Be sure to consult the student's plan in order to stay in compliance. Even when a state allows the use of restraint, a student's plan might forbid it.

Unsupervised Seclusion

Now let's look at seclusion. There are many disciplinary situations where a student might be removed from other students, such as through classroom time-outs, supervised in-school detentions and out-of-school detentions. These practices are allowable in all states. However, many states regulate the use of unsupervised seclusion.

Most states define unsupervised seclusion as isolating a student in a room that he or she cannot exit on his or her own. This includes situations where the door is locked, blocked by furniture, guarded by staff, 'child-proofed', or otherwise made impassable for the student. Many states, like Florida, don't have laws requiring a staff member to monitor a secluded student -- meaning the seclusion can be unsupervised. However, Florida's laws require any lock on a seclusion room to have an automatic release.

As of 2015, 16 states have laws that require an emergency situation with a threat of physical danger before seclusion can be used on any student. Another six states have laws that require an emergency situation with a threat of physical danger before seclusion can be used on a disabled student.

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