It’s Been a Long Time

Yesterday, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers signed SB 527 into law, making it Act 118. As I posted previously, this law will improve the prior law which restricts the inappropriate use of seclusion  and restraint on school children by:

  • Requiring that seclusion rooms cannot have a lock on the door;
  • Banning the use of prone restraints on school children, as they are potentially lethal;
  • Improving the mandatory training requirements for those authorized to use physical restraints on school children to require: a) evidence-based instruction on positive behavior intervention and supports (PBIS);  and b) evidence based techniques shown to prevent or reduce the use of restraints; and the ability to identify prohibited restraint techniques;
  • Adding law enforcement officers who use seclusion or restraint in a school building to those who must meet the notice and reporting requirements under the law;
  • Requiring the school principal to meet with those who participated in the incident to discuss the events that occurred before, during and after the use of seclusion or restraint and how to prevent the need for its use in the future;
  • Applying the notice, reporting and debriefing requirements to private school students if public school students have placed the child there; and
  • Requiring school districts to provide their annual seclusion and restraint data to DPI, and to disaggregate that data to identify the number of incidents that involve children with disabilities.

Taken together, the provisions in Act 118 will hopefully reduce the use of seclusion and restraint, make its use safer when it is used, and provide greater transparency to the public about its use. This transparency will not only help parents make better decisions about where to send their children to school, but it will provide opportunities for school districts and DPI to identify areas where schools are struggling by overusing these aversive techniques and can learn from schools who have successfully learned how to use PBIS instead of seclusion and restraint.

When Gov. Evers invited a group of advocates, including myself, to his office to celebrate the passage of this bill, I shook his hand, and he looked at me and said:

“It’s been a long time.”

It certainly has been a long time and Gov. Evers was only aware of some of the lengthy journey it took to get this bill passed.

When I first started as a special education attorney at the Wisconsin Coalition for Advocacy (now Disability Rights Wisconsin) in 1995, nobody was working on the troubling issue of seclusion and restraint of children in our schools. Shortly after I started there, I had some horrific cases involving the unregulated use of these aversive techniques. One teacher in Marinette had been putting mostly non-verbal students with disabilities in a locked room for so long that they were urinating and defecating on themselves. This had gone on for years until a special education aide blew the whistle on the teacher and I went to bat for these children getting a substantial settlement for them and forcing the teacher out of her job.

An elementary school in Monroe was using a locked seclusion room without telling parents. An intrepid TV reporter investigated with a hidden camera and caught the principal lying about the room, claiming it did not exist, until the reporter asked to see the school’s basement. The principal lost her job and we obtained a substantial settlement for our clients.

But these legal victories did not lead to swift enactment of a law to forbid these dangerous practices. In fact, the first bill I wrote to restrict and regulate the use of seclusion and restraint, only had one sponsor, then state Rep. Mark Pocan (now a Congressman) and it did not even get a hearing back in 2000. But, we persisted and increased our advocacy with publications and social media, despite the opposition from the teacher’s union, school board association, school administrators and even the Department of Public Instruction, all claiming ironically, that they did not want their hands tied.

In 2001, Tony Evers ran and lost for State Superintendent. During the campaign, we hosted a candidates’ forum on disability issues and I remember asking him if he would support legislation regulating the inappropriate use of seclusion  and restraint on school children and he said that he would. Unfortunately, he lost that race, but he persisted and eventually became State Superintendent in 2009 and served in that position until he was elected Governor of Wisconsin in 2019.

We kept re-introducing and improving the bill, but until 2009, we were still unable to get a hearing. Finally, we had a dramatic hearing, where parents, advocates and victims of seclusion and restraint told their horrific stories for hours to the Senate Education Committee. Sadly, although I believe the bill could have passed out of the committee, the teacher’s union pressured the Senate chair not to call a vote, and the bill died.

All was not for naught, however, as that dramatic hearing left the opponents of our legislation feeling like they had blood on their hands. After all, who really wants to publicly state that they support tying up and locking up children in school, especially non-verbal children with disabilities?

Finally, in 2012, the legislature passed Act 125 unanimously. While we were thrilled when Gov. Walker signed the bill, we knew that due to the necessary compromises that we had to make to the bill to get it passed, that it did not contain all the provisions that we thought were necessary to keep children safe in school.

S-R bill signing1

So, parents and advocates slowly but surely documented the problems that Act 125 did not solve, and 8 years later Gov. Evers signed the bill to improve the law which will hopefully save more school children from falling victim to the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint.

Systems change is usually a slow process and it simply will not happen without a dedicated group of advocates who put in the long, hard work, sometimes as in this case, over decades. There are too many parents and advocates and victims of seclusion and restraint to thank in this post and not all of them are pictured above. Each and every one of them should know, however, that without their hard work and persistence, these bills would never have passed. Yes, Gov. Evers it’s been a long time, but it has been worth the effort.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting my website: Systems Change Consulting.

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