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Get the latest coverage of the 2022 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Advocates cheer as an effort to stop Florida school workers from restraining disabled kids advances

A picture of desks and walls inside a classroom
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A years-long effort to stop the use of seclusion and restraint on disabled children in public schools is getting closer to approval. The bill would effectively prevent school personnel from using restraints like zip ties, handcuffs and straight jackets on disabled children.

A years-long effort to stop the use of seclusion and restraint on disabled children in public schools is getting closer to approval. The bill would effectively prevent school personnel from using restraints like zip ties, handcuffs and straight jackets on disabled children.

Disability advocates say for kids with disabilities, such restraints do a lot more harm than they provide help. The state has recorded numerous cases of children bearing physical bruises and scars after being forcefully restrained. Some have suffered broken bones.

The legislature banned the use of seclusion techniques for most kids with disabilities a year ago, but lawmakers stopped short of doing the same for mechanical restraints. Under this year’s bill, the only people who would be allowed to use such restraints are school law enforcement, security, resource officers or safety officers. Such restraints could only be used on children in grades 6 through 12.

The use of restraints in school has declined a lot in the past decade as the issue gained more notoriety—yet Disability Rights Florida Policy analyst Caitlin Clibbon notes it's still happening in Florida public schools.

“It’s not a huge number of kids, but so far this year, 59 kids in Florida had mechanical restraints used on them at schools. It’s still happening, but it’s only in a small subset of districts," she recently said in a House committee hearing on the bill.

Most of the state's school districts are finding other ways to calm children who may need help.

Jacksonville Democratic Rep. Tracie Davis, a former special needs teacher, said in the past too many kids with disabilities were being unnecessarily subjected to seclusion and restraint. There’s a place for it—she said, but in most cases, it's unnecessary and acknowledged there are far better ways to help children who may be struggling.

“When you’re dealing with children with special needs, they are stronger at certain times," Davis said, “It’s unfortunate that we’re here because sometimes, we shouldn’t have to legislative common sense. But in situations like this, when we’re dealing with students with special needs, that’s what it takes: common sense, passion and patience. Been there, done that.”

The language was in a bill championed last year by Democratic Rep. Bobby DuBose and Senator Lauren Book, but got stripped out. This year's sponsor, Republican Rep. Rene Plascencia, a former social studies teacher, told committee members it’s time to take care of that unfinished business.

For Plascencia, the issue of restraining disabled children is deeply personal. Some kids with significant disabilities can lash out or get violent. He says he didn’t fully understand the issue until his nephew was diagnosed with Autism.

“He’s non-verbal, he can be violent though he’s a tiny little kid," Plascencia said, getting choked up as he described watching his nephew's grandparents struggle to care for their grandchild.

Plascencia said the bill is aimed at encouraging greater use of behavior therapy, which he said has helped his family address his nephew's needs.

The years-long effort to stop the use of restraint in schools said Placencia "bring us closer to having all children have the ability to be successful as they grow and learn, and live a life of independence.”   

The ideal outcome would be to have no child subjected to physical restraints. Yet disability rights advocates are optimistic that this is the year the legislature is finally ready to take more action in curbing their use.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.