LEWISTON — Local lawmakers and public school officials said Monday they were urging the Maine Department of Education to revisit a rule change made last year regarding student restraints.
The change, which is legally binding for schools and teachers and was approved by the state Legislature, has added a layer of uncertainty on when teachers or other school staff can physically restrain and isolate students who are being disruptive and may be a danger to themselves or others.
"A child spits in their face and they can't do anything about it," Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton said. Saviello said he has met with dozens of teachers in the Farmington area and the effect the rule change is having is dramatic.
"They can't physically break (students) up if they are fighting," Saviello said. "Unless one's life is in danger — so if two kids are pounding the devil out of each other but they are still OK — you can't break it up."
Saviello said he will push for either a petition process that would force the department to reopen the rule or he will seek a resolution from the full Legislature that would likewise force the department to look again at the rule.
On Monday the Maine Education Association issued a release noting the rule change had led to "dozens" of public school teachers or education technicians being injured by students because they felt they had no other option.
The MEA is the union for Maine public school teachers.
MEA President and teacher Lois Kilby-Chesley said on paper the rules seem clear but school management and teachers across the state are experiencing serious issues implementing it.
"I have heard from educators across the state fearful if they do so much as touch a child’s arm to prevent them from throwing a book they will lose their jobs," Kilby-Chesley said. "I can't imagine this is what the rule is intended to do.”
And the issue of revisiting the rule is one that both the union and management agree on.
Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said the rule is also having some severe and unintended consequences for students.
There have been multiple incidents in Lewiston where the new rule has caused problems, including one where, had a teacher been allowed to use a restraint early on, a violent situation would have been contained, the student would have remained in school and the disruption to the classroom minimized, Webster said.
"It ended up escalating to the point where restraint was required and we had a room — where fortunately there was no damage — but we had desks and chairs overturned and we could have had significant damage. We also did have some minor injuries to staff," Webster said. "Absent that new restraint (rule), I'm convinced this would not have happened."
That student ended up being suspended, remains out of school, is receiving services outside of school and it's still questionable whether that student will be allowed to come back, Webster said.
He said another incident on the first day of school involved a 5-year-old who refused to enter the kindergarten classroom. The child was throwing a tantrum in the hallway and was allowed to continue doing so, because the child was not a danger to others or himself. The child was, however, disruptive to the other six classrooms in the area as teachers attempted to hold classes.
Webster, along with dozens of other public school administrators in Maine, warned against the rule change last year.
He said he and other superintendents spent time in Augusta earlier this year as the change was being contemplated and vetted but the testimony from people on the other side was often overwhelming.
"There was a roomful of people all testifying in favor of the rule citing scary stories from across the nation where children had been harmed and in some cases killed through inappropriate use of restraint," Webster said. "Those stories are sad and those stories are gut-wrenching and certainly something we don't want in Maine."
He said there were some changes made based on the input of public school educators but much of the rule was based on incidents that had never occurred in Maine.
"But it is a real challenging environment to oppose something that is purported to be in the best interests of students," Webster said. "At that point we had no direct experience. Now we have facts we can share which I think will lead to some reasonable adjustments to the rule."
Despite multiple resolutions being passed by local school committees as well as various professional associations, like the Maine School Management Association, the Department of Education has been reluctant to reopen the process.
Katy Grondin, superintendent of Auburn's schools, said her staff was also dealing with the rule change and its unintended consequences.
One drawback she noted is that even parents who want to give the school more authority to use physical restraints with a child, as needed, have no ability to do that.
"It really has made people feel that their hands are tied," Grondin said.
She said understanding the legal definition of "imminent danger" as it's defined in the rules is not easy and leaves staff uncertain, despite training by lawyers on the topic.
She said the law requires restraint be used only as a "last resort" and when it is used there is a cascade of documentation and reporting required of the staff.
Each of the Auburn schools has developed "safety care teams," staff who are trained to use restraints and other methods to deal with a dangerous student or situation.
"It's the challenge of the balance," said David Connerty-Marin, the spokesman for the Maine Department of Education.
On Monday, he said the department was content to allow state lawmakers to pass a resolution forcing the department to reopen the process.
He said the rule change was the result of a monthslong process that involved multiple stakeholders, including the Legislature and some of those now complaining the rule change isn't working.
"We are not going to move precipitously to make changes without allowing for some dialogue among the various stakeholder groups," Connerty-Marin said. "The way the rule-making process works, we would be under such a tight time frame as an agency we would have to get something in within the next couple of weeks."
A legislative process, according to Connerty-Marin, would allow for more discussion and public dialogue on the change.
Until that happens the current rule will be in effect, Connerty-Marin said.
Lawmakers, the MEA and school officials are expected to meet with Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen in the days ahead to further discuss the rule, Connerty-Marin said.
Both Saviello and Webster said they remained puzzled why the department has been reluctant to consider taking a hard look at the rule for Maine.
"This rule, which has the force of law, is preventing teachers from using their professional judgment to do what's best for all the students in their class," Webster said.