Confusion clarified on school district’s restraint policy for students with disabilities

embers of our community have expressed outrage and concern about The School District of Palm Beach County’s Policy on the use of restraint for students with disabilities. 

A petition with titled “End Mechanical Restraints Against the Disabled in PBC Schools” has gained close to 500 signatures in just a week.  Community outrage was triggered by misleading information and confusing policy language circulating in another news outlet last week regarding mechanical restraints. Kevin McCormick, the school district’s Director of Exceptional Student Education, is aware of these developments and has quickly clarified misunderstandings among community members.

The misleading language stated:  “Techniques or devices such as straightjackets, zip ties, handcuffs, or tie downs may not be used in ways that may obstruct or restrict breathing or blood flow or that place a student in a facedown position with the student’s hands restrained behind the student’s back.”  For some, this implies that devices may be used as long as they do not restrict breathing or blood flow.

“This is barbaric!!” commented Joe McGuire on the petition.  “I would sue the entire state if they did this to my son.  Pay the teachers, and train them.  My son isn’t getting what he needs and that doesn’t give you the right to touch him in this manner EVER,” commented Lisa Carter on that same petition.

Petition to end mechanical restraints against disabled students.
Photo credit: Jean-Marie Nacer

Some of the triggering language was taken directly from Florida Statute 1003.573, which was last amended by house bill 149 of the 2021 legislative session and went into effect on July 1, 2021. 

McCormick clarified, “There was no intent to allow for mechanical restraint in the Policy 5.181 revisions.  We previously included new statutory language in effect last July.  Since the language caused confusion with our intent, we have recently updated the Policy to remove the new language altogether.  The new language will clarify.”  He further stated, “Staff are prohibited from using mechanical restraint for the purpose of managing behavior…Our school district has prohibited these practices with this Policy since 2007.”

Staying true to his word, the School District’s policy 5.181, “Policy for the Use of Physical Restraint With Students With Disabilities,” has been updated and removed that language and states explicitly, “The use of mechanical restraints in the District is prohibited.  Examples of prohibited mechanical restraints include, but are not limited to: straightjackets, belts, vests, helmets, padded mittens, tie-downs, wraps and chairs with straps, seatbelts, blanket wrapping, harnesses, tape and trays.” 

The only allowable devices that may be considered mechanical restraints are devices that have already been prescribed by a medical or service professional for specific uses related to medical conditions, such as orthopedic devices, vehicle safety restraints, body position supports, and medical protective equipment.

While three different types of restraint exist (chemical, mechanical and physical), the school district’s policy 5.181 only allows physical restraint of students with disabilities.  Physical restraint can only be performed by specifically trained school district staff who assess each circumstance to determine if “…an imminent risk of serious injury or death to the student or others, exists.” 

The District’s Policy defines physical restraint: as “the use of manual restraint techniques that involve significant physical force applied by a teacher or other staff member to restrict the movement of all or part of a student’s body.” While this definition may leave some readers with disturbing imagery, McCormick verbally walked me through a scenario describing some techniques that trained staff utilize, beginning with de-escalation and physical contact that involved starting with less invasive contact on a wrist, then tricep and moving step by step to more contact if needed.  The District prohibits both threats of restraint and the use of any restraint for punishment, convenience, and humiliation.

When asked if the school district’s police could potentially restrain students with disabilities with zip ties or handcuffs, McCormick told me that school police would only get involved in the very rare event that a serious crime was committed on a school campus, with an emphasis on the word ‘serious.’  The school district police are not a part of the Crisis Mobile Response Team (CAPE), according to McCormick who relayed that this team responds to help provide de-escalation and other expertise and consists of behavioral and mental health specialists.

Kevin McCormick, Director, Exceptional Student Education
Kevin McCormick, Director, Exceptional Student Education

When asked about the potential for the school district police to apply zip ties or handcuffs to students with disabilities for the use of the “Baker Act” (The Florida Mental Health Act), McCormick explained that first, a student would be assessed by the District’s Crisis Mobile Response Team (CAPE) for criteria to establish imminent harm to self or others. The school police would be required to follow county transport regulations under the Act.

The School District of Palm Beach County’s Policy on the use of restraint for students with disabilities is still in development after revisions began due to 2021 changes in state law.  The policy will have a first reading at the District’s school board meeting on Wednesday, April 13th, immediately following the workshop after a closed meeting for expulsions at 2 p.m. in the Board Room.  The updated policy, 5.181, and track changes can be found on the District’s website under “Board Policies.”

Policy 5.181

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Related: Palm Beach County School Board a farce, children not safe

You may also like: PBC School District Candidates 2022

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