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Missouri Lawmakers To Crack Down On Seclusion Rooms, Restraint In School

Photos of seclusion rooms at press conference on Monday, Jan. 13.
Jaclyn Driscoll | St. Louis Public Radio
At a press conference on Monday, lawmakers displayed pictures of seclusion rooms used in schools in Missouri.

For the second year, legislation aiming to limit the use of seclusion rooms and restraint in Missouri schools has been filed. 

But this year, with Republican support in the GOP-dominated Legislature and more media attention, the chances of it passing appear more promising, backers say.

State Rep. Ian Mackey, D-Richmond Heights, filed the proposal last year. It passed it out of committee but did not make it to the House floor for a vote. This year, Mackey said lawmakers are much more aware of the issue. 

“Isolating kids, and in many cases telling no one, including the parents,” is happening every day in Missouri schools, Mackey said at a press conference promoting the legislation on Monday. 

The legislation defines “seclusion” as the “involuntary confinement of a student alone in a room or area from which the student is physically prevented from leaving.” It also defines “restraint” as the use of “physical force, with or without the use of any physical device or material, to restrict the free movement of all or a portion of a student's body.” 

With these definitions, the state will be able to better regulate how and when public schools can use seclusion rooms or restrain students. 

“Nearly all of Missouri school districts have a policy in place that’s been adopted by their local board,” Mackey said. “In numerous instances, however, there’ve been violations of these policies.” 

The measure also requires that each school district have reporting requirements in place before the 2021 school year. The requirements include notifying parents, giving a report to the Department of Elementary and Secondary education, the right to review a report, and the right to file a complaint.

Mackey said the state does not have any reporting requirements currently. Schools are only mandated to report to the federal Department of Education if a door to a seclusion room was locked, but some schools have found ways around that. 

“A child was placed in the room and a mat was placed in front of the door, or a chair blocked the door, or a teacher stood outside the door, so they didn’t report that,” Mackey said. 

According to federal data in the 2013-14 school year (the most recent collected), there were 2,347 students subjected to seclusion and 1,932 students subjected to physical restraint in Missouri public schools. 

A parent’s experience

Seclusion room and restraint press conference on Monday, Jan. 13
Credit Jaclyn Driscoll | St. Louis Public Radio
State Rep. Ian Mackey (at podium) promotes his legislation to limit the use of seclusion rooms and restraint in Missouri schools. State Rep. Dottie Bailey (left of Mackey) has also filed this legislation. Shawan Daniels and her son (far left) shared their personal experience with seclusion rooms at the press conference on Monday.

Columbia resident Shawan Daniels also spoke at the press conference. She said her son was restrained and placed in a seclusion room at a Columbia public school, which resulted in his receiving medical attention at the local hospital. 

“He came home and told me that his arm was hurting,” Daniels said. “Maybe 30 minutes later, the teachers called.” 

Daniels said the school told her that her son had “been in an incident and they had to put him in a restraint” around 1 p.m. She said she wasn’t notified until after 4 p.m. 

When Daniels asked what happened, she said the school told her that her son was “behaving in an unsafe manner,” but has yet to provide her with any proof of what occurred. 

“Nobody wants to be thrown in a box,” she said. “So you can probably imagine what he said.” 

Daniels said she had no idea the rooms existed, but she did visit a room after she learned her son was put into one. 

“These rooms didn’t have vents in them, water, or anything,” she said. 

Daniels said her son has been on a homebound education program for three months now but has yet to be assigned a teacher. 

Bipartisan support

Mackey failed to attract any lawmakers to co-sponsor the bill in 2019, but Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, has filed her own legislation with the exact same language as Mackey's. At some point, they’ll likely co-sponsor one piece of legislation. 

Bailey noted that she does not typically support regulation. But she’s going to work hard to mandate some parameters surrounding seclusion rooms and restraint in schools. 

“When your child is in a room all day or an amount of time or they’re restrained, (parents) should know immediately,” she said. “That parents aren’t notified almost immediately, something’s wrong.” 

If passed, the measure would mandate schools to notify parents within 24 hours of a student being restrained or placed in seclusion. 

Bailey said House Speaker Elijah Haahr supports the proposal. Gov. Mike Parson did not immediately respond on whether he would sign it into law if the measure passed both chambers.

Media attention

This legislation garnered more attention after a Chicago Tribune and Pro Publica investigation in Illinois that revealed isolation rooms had been misused. According to the report, in thousands of instances where seclusion was used, “school workers documented no safety reason for the seclusion” and other reasons prohibited by state law.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered schools to immediately stop secluding children and pledged to work with legislators on approving a state law during the 2020 legislative session. 

Currently, 19 states prohibit secluding children in locked rooms, but Missouri still uses the practice, and lawmakers have no plans to make it illegal. 

“Unlike Illinois, we don’t want to ban them, because there are times when you have a kiddo that might put himself in danger or others,” Bailey said. “This is not a ban, but we definitely want to safeguard it.”

Follow Jaclyn on Twitter: @DriscollNPR

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Jaclyn is the Jefferson City statehouse reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.