LEWISTON — Police are going to be called to schools more often and taxpayers could be stuck with broken equipment bills because of a new state law that forbids teachers from physically escorting or holding out-of-control students, Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said.
The intent of the law — to ensure that students aren't hurt if restrained in school — is good, Webster said. But the law goes too far in that it prohibits a teacher, an education technician or a principal from physically escorting, holding or touching a student if that student doesn't welcome the intervention.
The law says if a student puts up any resistance to being guided to or from a room, that's considered restraint, Webster said. “Anyone who's raised children knows at ages 5 or 6, a lot of things they aren't going to do voluntarily.”
Auburn Superintendent Katy Grondin explained the law to the Auburn School Committee on Wednesday night.
If a student is lying on the floor and tells a teacher, “'I'm not moving and you can't make me,' you have to wait, be patient and talk to the child,” Grondin said. Before the law was enacted, a teacher could escort the child.
Webster offered another scenario: “Say you have a class of 29 kids. One student's crying in the back of the room.” If that student is not in danger of harming himself or herself or others, the law doesn't allow a teacher to move that student outside the room, Webster said.
“Because of that one student, the learning stops for everybody in the class,” he said. The teacher would have to take all of the other students out of the classroom. “We don't have extra classrooms,” Webster said.
And if a student is in a computer lab and starts throwing computers, “we're supposed to stand by and let $100,000 in assets go down the drain,” Webster said.
Teachers are undergoing training for the new law, and the state is not providing money for that training, Webster said. If any unwelcome holds or escorts of students are used, the law requires schools to fill out forms, contact parents and hold meetings. “More paperwork, more regulation,” Grondin said.
Webster said the law puts teachers in a difficult place, where they have to worry about “being called on the carpet” for violating the law. Police are not subject to it. “If this law stays unchanged, there'll be more calls to police,” he said.
David Connerty-Marin, Maine Department of Education spokesman, said the new law means “a new way of doing things. It's a learning curve for everyone, which is why we have training.”
There have been cases in Maine in which students were pinned down and harmed, Connerty-Marin said. In other states, students have been severely injured or killed, experts said. “The challenge is protecting everybody.”
Sandra MacArthur of the Maine School Management Association said her organization is hearing from school districts concerned about the new law. The Maine Department of Education is expected to issue guidance recommendations to school districts, which should help. “We have not seen that yet,” she said.
Karen Farber of the Maine Disability Rights Center said the law was written with many stakeholders, including special education directors, school districts and advocates for the disabled.
The old rules around holds and student restraints “presented a number of problems,” Farber said. The law had to be updated because professionals have learned about better, more effective intervention, she said.
In 2010, the Forecaster reported a Scarborough special ed student was restrained more than 25 times in 18 months. The restraints left him with a sprained wrist, hospitalization and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Forecaster story. In March 2010, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report detailing 10 cases in which children died or were seriously injured during therapeutic restraints.
Maine's new law is a big change, Farber said. “Change is difficult for everybody.” Schools may want to give the new law a shot "and see if their fears become reality,” she said. “With all regulation, sometimes there may be tweaking.”
The Auburn School Committee expressed interest in passing a resolve urging that the law be modified. First, though, the School Department will look at how the new law affects schools during September, Grondin said.