Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Florida parents push for regulation of treatment of disabled students

From the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in Florida:

Florida parents are pushing for a law that could dramatically change how teachers treat students with disabilities, banning techniques such as secluding children in isolated rooms, strapping them into chairs and spraying them with liquids.

The bill would require teachers to be trained in nonphysical strategies for working with special needs students. It would also require teachers to file reports and notify a child's parents when restraints are used in emergency situations.

If the bill is passed, Florida would have one of the toughest laws in the country for regulating the treatment of the state's 376,000 students -- about 14 percent -- who qualify for special education.

"What we're talking about here is creating safety for teachers and children," said Sylvia Smith, with Florida's Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities.

A similar proposal died last year after critics said it was vague and could restrict teachers too much. This year, the state's budget shortfall is a factor.

"Anything that is going to have a fiscal impact in this kind of year is going to be a problem," said state Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.

Detert said her staff is conducting an analysis of its costs and its impact.

There is a growing advocacy movement among parents who say the techniques referenced in the bill are dangerous. The movement strengthened after a former Venice Elementary teacher was acquitted of charges that she abused her profoundly disabled students. The teacher had acknowledged that she hit her students in the head with objects and strapped them in chairs to control their movement.

"There's just been too much going on," said Sharon Boyd, a Charlotte County parent at the forefront of the push for the legislation. "We're done with it."

Hundreds of supporters plan to rally for the bill in Tallahassee today, on Developmental Disabilities Awareness Day.

Teachers in special education classrooms sometimes use unconventional strategies to teach and control students with extreme learning challenges.

But Florida does not have policies or laws regulating what techniques teachers can use, even though there are state laws for people who work with the disabled in health care settings.

The state allows school districts to decide, but most do not have specific written guidelines. The Department of Education's efforts to implement rules have been criticized by parents and advocates as not strict enough.

There is no way to know how widespread the use of restraints is in Florida classrooms. Most school districts do not require teachers to record instances, or report them to anyone -- including parents.

Some parents say they do not know their children are being restrained until they come home with injuries.

"No one knows what goes on behind those doors," said Boyd, whose 9-year-old son has autism.

Even educators debate the legitimacy of restraints.

Administrators in Sarasota County say they do not allow teachers to use most of the techniques outlawed in the bill.

"When I reviewed the bill I didn't see it as an additional burden," said Sonia Figaredo-Alberts, who oversees Sarasota's special education services.

The Florida Education Association has not taken a position on the bill.

School systems across the country are under pressure to ban restraints.

An analysis by the National Disability Rights Network released in January found that 10 states have laws restricting what techniques teachers can use.

Of those, only two ban the facedown restraints that are included in Florida's law.