Are student restraints a state secret?

Since 1974, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act has guaranteed students that their academic records will be confidential, but students and their families are permitted access to those records. The act, known as FERPA, applies to students attending any private or public school, elementary grades right through college, and to any educational agency that receives federal funds.

What that means is that if Johnny Student doesn’t get promoted to the seventh grade because he failed math and history classes, no one other than the school, Johnny and his family is entitled to that information.

FERPA protects students.

It was not drafted, nor was it ever intended, to shield school policies, practices or personnel.

And, yet, interpretation of the law has become perverted over time and public officials are increasingly denying requests for information about what happens in our schools.

On Wednesday, the Sun Journal published an eye-opening investigation by Forecaster Reporter Emily Parkhurst about the use of therapeutic restraints in public schools in Portland, Scarborough and Lewiston.

Therapeutic restraints are used, according to the Maine Department of Education, to restrain out-of-control students to prevent them from injuring themselves or others. In some cases, a staff member can hold a student prone, face down on the floor, immobilizing the student’s legs and arms. In other cases, a staff member can seat a child in a chair, and restrain them from behind by locking arms around the seated child.

No straps or other devices are used to restrain students, just the physical strength of a staff member.

In gathering information for her report, Parkhurst filed a Freedom of Access Act request with six Portland-area school departments seeking access to documents related to the use of therapeutic restraints, including a list of staff members certified to perform restraints.

The FOAA requests were denied.

According to attorney Peter Felmly of DrummondWoodsum, the requested records are confidential under FERPA, citing a 2008 revision that specifically excludes journalists, researchers and other members of the public from access to “education records for school accountability or other matters of public interest …”

He stops short in his explanation, however.

According to the Federal Register, rulemaking under FERPA allows for removing personally identifiable information from education records, allowing “an appropriate balance that facilitates school accountability and educational research while preserving the statutory privacy protections in FERPA.”

In other words, school records — minus students’ personal identifying information — are accessible. What is specifically shielded are education records that are directly related to a specific student, not procedures of the staff as it relates to the student body.

The worry about identifying students, especially difficult students who need intervention in schools, is real and FERPA is essential in protecting these students.

However, FERPA is not an all-encompassing blanket of secrecy for everything that happens in our schools.

According to attorney Frank LoMonte of the Student Press Law Center, “so far the courts have been clear that, once the identifying information is removed from the record, it is no longer a FERPA record, regardless of whether a person with some independent level of knowledge might be able to match it up with a particular student.”

And, according to David Cuillier, chairman of the Society for Professional Journalists Freedom of Information Committee, FERPA “was intended to protect students from being embarrassed by their grades being made public. It was never intended to hide teachers who hurt students.”

At least one student in the Scarborough system has been hurt by the use of therapeutic restraints, and the Maine Disability Rights Center clocked in 53 complaints of abusive restraints statewide in the past two years.

Abuse is not happening in every school, but it is happening. And the public has every right to know about the situation, even though it does not have the right to know specifically which students are harmed.

Portland-area schools denied naming teachers who are certified to use therapeutic restraints because they don’t have such a list already created, and FOAA doesn’t require schools to create records in response to records requests. That’s true, but if school officials can’t or won’t simply tell the public which teachers are certified to use physical restraints on students, that’s a whole different problem.

Knowing which teachers are using physical restraints, how often and on how many students must not be a secret.

If we quietly allow it to be, Cuillier has a good question: Where is this country headed?

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 's picture


Concerned KD, While you make some really great points.. I can tell you really have no idea how it is to LIVE with a child who is challenged with disabilities that affect their behavior. You say that you have experience face to face but I am not entirely convinced. I have one of those children, discipline and parenting them is very hard and unlike any parenting I have seen. You see, I have two children, my first child does not have ADHD or any other type of disorder.. You could punish him for swearing or hitting a friend and after a few punishments, he got the concept. My second child is ADHD and has other mood disorders. You can punish him every day for the whole year for the same thing and he still wont get the concept. He has difficulties verbalizing what he needs and wants, so he is often frustrated and violent- We have seen SEVERAL therapist with him and we have been taught a different way of parenting him.. believe it or not, You apply positive reinforcement instead of punishments, and you will net a different result. So That is what do we do at home with a violent and aggressive child (who attends public school) we look for the things that may or may not set him off (they call them antecedents in the IEP) and we distract or help him through them, we help him cope with disappointments and help him find the words he needs to express his emotions. We praise him when he comes up against a situation that is hard and he handles it well.. We don't have many violent outbursts. At school, it is another story- he is one on one with an ed teck (who doesn't have any special ed training) and restraints are used almost daily... So you tell me Concerned, where do you think the issue is????

 's picture

ive heard so many stories of

ive heard so many stories of children becoming hurt due to therapeutic restraint... even dying. i am not so sure that teachers would be the ones to be qualified to do this-also i am not so sure that i would want my teacher to put their hands on my children. teachers do not belong putting their hands on kids period!

Sandra Coulombe's picture

As a parent and grandparent I

As a parent and grandparent I am far more concerned about the disruption of the safety and education of the children who ARE controlling themselves and trying to learn. Those who are out of control not only present a danger to themselves but to the rest of the class. Beyond that they cause major disruptions in the education of the children who are behaving.
If a child truly has some disorder that makes them unable to control violent outburst there really need to be in a special school not disrupting the education of the rest of our children. I am all for the free appropriate education however appropriate needs to be more emphasized and include what is appropriate for the rest of the students as well.

To those expressing disgust at the use of restraints on these violent outburst children. You would really have a field day on our educators if they used your hands off positive modeling and that violent kid killed some innocent child while he wasn't being restrained. The children being restrained in our schools are violent and dangerous to themselves AND the rest of the children in the class! Restrain away, better send the violent outburst kids to a special school so the rest of the children have a safe appropriate education!

 's picture

Baaahaaa! Clearly you have

Baaahaaa! Clearly you have NO children...especially a problem child.

 's picture

Well, your "opinions" I read

Well, your "opinions" I read day after day make me ill. I certainly would NOT want you watching my child, under any circumstances. You, my dear, do not impress well as some people who read these blogs. We've got your number honey.

 's picture

I know! Kids NEVER hit other

I know! Kids NEVER hit other children! (especially in your care) You're a your own mind. I wish I could be just like you!!

 's picture

LOL...keep it coming honey.

LOL...keep it coming honey.


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