June 17, 2023, Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Texas parents called for an end to dangerous restraints in schools. It didn’t happen https://amp.star-telegram.com/news/local/crossroads-lab/article276479616.html
Texas lawmakers took a step in the right direction this session to keep students with disabilities safe at school, advocates say, but they didn’t go as far as they’d hoped.
A bill that prevents school police and security guards from placing students in handcuffs or subduing them with pepper spray passed both chambers and moved on to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk, where it awaits his signature.
But a higher-priority proposal that would have barred school personnel from using the most dangerous types of physical restraints against students passed the House and died in conference committee.
“It was a disappointing session,” said Steven Aleman, senior policy specialist with the advocacy group Disability Rights Texas.
TEXAS’ ‘NO KIDS IN CUFFS’ BILL AWAITS ABBOTT’S SIGNATURE
Senate Bill 133, authored by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, bars school resource officers and security guards from physically restraining students in fifth grade or below, or using Tasers or chemical irritants like pepper spray to subdue them “unless the student poses a serious risk of harm to the student or another person.”
The measure, known by some as the “no kids in cuffs” bill, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
A separate bill, House Bill 133, would have barred school personnel from using prone and supine restraints, techniques that place the student either face-down or face-up on the floor. Advocates for students with disabilities say those techniques are especially dangerous, because they can cut off the airways. In 2020, George Floyd died while being restrained in a prone position by Minneapolis police officers.
The restraint bill, authored by Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, never got a committee hearing. Representatives voted to add the ban on prone and supine restraints as an amendment to the “no kids in cuffs” bill, but it was removed later in conference committee.
As it stands, regulations regarding prone and supine restraints in Texas schools are murky. The state’s education code bars school personnel from using the techniques in most circumstances, although it lays out no penalties for violating that ban. A separate section of state law states that districts may use those maneuvers in emergency situations.
Advocates say the lack of an outright ban allows districts that use those techniques regularly to claim they only do so in emergencies.
SPECIAL EDUCATION GROWS IN TEXAS AFTER FEDERAL INVESTIGATION
Gonzalez said she was proud to see the restraint proposal pass out of the House as an amendment to the Senate bill, but disappointed it didn’t become law. But she acknowledged that such proposals often take years to make it to the governor’s desk.
Gonzalez, who has a sister with Down syndrome, said it’s especially important now that the state enacts policies to support students with disabilities because of the growing number of students identified for special education programs.
Since the 2017-18 school year, the state has added more than 200,000 students to its special education programs, according to Texas Education Agency data. That’s a 44% uptick over the five years before.
That growth comes after a U.S. Department of Education investigation concluded in 2018 that Texas violated federal law by effectively capping the number of students who received special education services each year. State education officials were more likely to monitor or intervene in districts where more than 8.5% of students were in special education programs, investigators found.
That investigation was prompted by a series of reports published by the Houston Chronicle in 2016. Following the federal investigation, Abbott ordered TEA to take immediate corrective action.
Gonzalez said she heard pushback from school officials who were concerned about liability issues that could result from her bill. But she said there’s a way for the state to support districts while still ensuring that schools are safe for the most vulnerable students.
She said she isn’t yet sure whether she will refile the bill in its current form, but said she still hopes to see a ban on prone and supine restraints become law.
“The bill became an issue because kids actually died,” she said. “And so we have to be responsive to that.”
FORT WORTH ISD STUDENT DIED AFTER PRONE RESTRAINT
On March 1, 2021, a student in the Fort Worth school district died following a restraint that would have been banned under Gonzalez’s bill. Xavier Hernandez, 21, was a student at Boulevard Heights School and Transition Center, a school for students with disabilities. Hernandez had autism and schizophrenia.
A school staff member who was involved in the restraint told police that he and another employee held Hernandez face-down on the floor, pinning his arms to the floor because he sometimes bit his own hands while he was being restrained. When school staff noticed Hernandez’s lips were turning blue, they called 911, and paramedics rushed him to John Peter Smith Hospital, where he died.
The now-former school staff member, Toras Hill, told the Star-Telegram last year that teachers at Boulevard Heights had an understanding that Hernandez would need to be restrained anytime he got up to run out of the classroom, because they didn’t know where he would go. Teachers and other staff generally restrained him two or three times a week, Hill said, usually by pinning him on his stomach. Hill said he was unaware the restraint technique was prohibited in the state’s education code.
Later that year, the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office determined that Hernandez died of the combined effects of physical restraint and chlorpromazine, an antipsychotic medication that’s sometimes used as a sedative for aggressive behaviors in children and teenagers.
DISABLED STUDENTS RESTRAINED DISPROPORTIONATELY NATIONWIDE
According to a 2020 report by Disability Rights Texas, 91% of the students who are restrained in schools across the state have disabilities, while students with disabilities make up only about 10% of the state’s overall enrollment.
Students with disabilities that more severely affect their behavior, like autism or emotional disturbance, are most likely to be restrained, according to the report.
Texas is roughly in line with the rest of the country in terms of how often it restrains students with disabilities, according to federal data: about 80% of students who were restrained nationwide during the 2017-18 school year had individualized education programs stemming from a disability. That’s the most recent year for which U.S. Department of Education figures are available.
Aleman, the Disability Rights Texas policy specialist, said the ban on prone and supine restraints was the organization’s top priority for the session because it would have barred districts from using some of the most dangerous restraint techniques against students. While it was encouraging to see the proposal pass the House as an amendment to the Senate bill, he said, it was disappointing to see it fail to reach the governor’s desk.
Still, Aleman said the passage of the “no kids in cuffs” bill will be helpful. It’s important that police aren’t allowed to take such extreme measures against young students except in the direst of circumstances, he said. The bill could also represent a stepping stone to broader regulations governing how school personnel restrain students, he said…..
At a press conference at the beginning of the legislative session, parents of Texas students with disabilities described viewing video footage of their children being physically restrained at school. Jeanna TenBrink, a mother from the Houston area, said she saw teachers and paraprofessionals holding her daughter, Leah, face-down on a bathroom floor with her arms behind her back as the girl struggled to breathe. Leah, who was 16 at the time of the press conference, is autistic and mostly nonverbal, meaning she was unable to tell her mother what was happening at school, TenBrink said.
Tatiana Alfano said an administrator at the GOALS Learning Center in the Round Rock school district threw her son Quintin into a wall in a seclusion room before he and another staff member placed him in a prone restraint. Austin CBS affiliate KVUE-TV aired surveillance footage in October showing the administrator grabbing Quinton as he tried to leave the room and throwing him back into the room, where the teenager hit his head on the wall and fell to the floor. During the press conference, Alfano said she worries that there are many more cases that have never come to light.
“With over 100 restraints reported every month by our ISD alone, who’s to say that those restraints are being performed safely and ethically?” she asked.
Abbott has until Sunday to sign or veto SB 133, the “no kids in cuffs” bill. If the governor takes no action, the bill takes effect immediately.