LEWISTON – A photo of chairs overturned in a Lewiston classroom, the aftermath of a first-grader out of control and who broke a teachers nose this past fall, illustrates the need to change a state law on restraining students, Lewiston School Superintendent Bill Webster said.
Webster was one of dozens of Maine educators who testified before lawmakers Wednesday, asking them to pass L.D. 243. It would amend a state law that does not allow educators to physically restrain students. The restraint definition includes no touching or leading a child out of a classroom, except in a case of “imminent danger.”
The law is resulting in youngsters learning they can act out in school without consequences, and taxpayers are paying for destroyed property, Webster said.
He shared two examples of how the law impeded learning in Lewiston this past fall.
One involved a first-grader he called Andrew who has an emotional disturbance diagnosis. One day, Andrew started to yell, overturn his chair “and made it clear no one should get near him,” Webster said.
Before the new state law, his teacher would have had a firm hold on the boy and directed him away from other students, de-escalating the situation. But the teacher, “now trained in Rule 33, knew the hold was not appropriate as long as Andrew did not present 'imminent risk of injury or harm,'” Webster said.
As the teacher and ed tech stood helplessly by, the boy grew more agitated and began overturning desks and chairs. “Fortunately the ed tech was able to grab three laptops before they were slammed to the floor,” Webster said.
Finally the teacher determined the boy was at imminent risk of injuring himself, so she placed him in a hold. He seemed to begin to calm down. The teacher relaxed her arms. “At that point Andrew slammed his head up and back, instantly breaking the teacher's nose,” Webster said.
The teacher and principal told Webster if Andrew had been placed in a hold earlier, the situation would have de-escalated quickly. Andrew would still be in the same school having increasing levels of success. Instead today the boy has been removed from the school and placed in a more restrictive setting elsewhere at a higher cost to taxpayers, Webster said.
His second example involved a kindergarten student he called Johnny. Johnny was having emotional difficulty transitioning from home with his mother to school in September. “This is not unusual,” Webster said. Kindergarten teachers everywhere work with parents to help children become more comfortable with school.
What was unusual was the new state rule, which prohibited the teacher from putting an arm around a reluctant child, or lovingly guiding the student to his or her room or desk, Webster said.
One morning Johnny was particularly struggling. He fell to the floor in the school hallway, screaming and crying. His teacher went to him to console him. The boy “indicated clearly by jerking his shoulder away that he did not want any contact nor did he want to move.”
He continued screaming and crying “at an even higher decibel level,” Webster said. Since there was no imminent risk of injury or harm he was left in the middle of the hall floor.
The boy's mother was called and came to school. By the time she arrived, students in six classrooms were distracted by the screaming. For 15 minutes, “learning stopped for 120 students,” Webster said.
Johnny's mother picked him up asking why the teacher had not. They explained they can't, even if parents give their permission, Webster said.
Problems with the state law became clear once the school year started, he said. It's regretful that the Maine Department of Education didn't amend the rule, “which they had the authority to do.”
Webster asked lawmakers to “return sanity to Maine education” and pass the bill introduced by Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton.
Saviello said Friday he's optimistic that will happen, that the legislative Education Committee "got it," and could act to recommend changes within a week. The goal is to allow teachers to use professional judgment in giving students a gentle nudge or loving hug.
Stories like Lewiston's are common, Saviello said.
He began hearing from educators in the fall the law wasn't working. “I sat down with 30 teachers and administrators and they unloaded,” Saviello said.
During the hearing, “we had the Maine Education Association (teachers union), the superintendents association, the principals association, and the school board association all on the same page” asking that the law be changed. “How often do you see those stars align?" he asked. "We've got a problem. We've got to fix it.”