Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Florida parents trying to prevent seclusion, restraint in schools find help in government report

From The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla.

Florida parents behind a renewed push to prevent seclusion and restraint in classrooms are buoyed by a federal report that raises concerns about potentially deadly misuse.

The Government Accountability Office discovered hundreds of alleged abuse and death cases related to restraint and seclusion of school children in two decades but no entity collecting that information.

The GAO examined 10 cases with convictions, settlements or liability findings that included:

• An untrained aide who gagged and duct-taped five Florida children;

• A Tennessee teacher who strapped a child with a Down syndrome-type condition to a cot;

• A 230-pound Texas teacher got on top of a student and caused his death.

Parents are hopeful the report will fuel their campaign to pass a bill recently filed in Florida to restrict seclusion and restraint of disabled children.

It will be pitched to lawmakers for the third time and was referred to education and health care committees this month. Rep. Dorothy Hukill, a Volusia County Republican who sponsored the bill, hopes it will be heard by January.

“It’s not just me and a group of parents talking about it anymore,” said Phyllis Musumeci, founder of Florida Families Against Restraint and Seclusion. “It’s gotten all the way up to Washington.”

Musumeci said her 17-year-old son with autism, was restrained more than 89 times without her knowledge in Palm Beach schools in 2005. He was later diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder.

The federal inquiry found restraint and seclusion are largely unregulated. There are no federal laws, and Florida was among 19 states that had no regulations. After the report, federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan asked all states to review and potentially revise and develop guidelines.

In response, a Florida Department of Education liaison, John Lockwood, pointed to the bill and other efforts that may lift Florida from the zero regulation column.

The bill requires that schools notify parents each time restraint is used, bars manual physical restraint by those not certified to use district methods and prohibits restraints including ones in which a child would be lying face down.