Data Shows Missouri Schools Turning to Seclusion and Restraint

Two St. Charles County districts showed the highest incidences in metro St. Louis

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click to enlarge A Missouri nonprofit used new state data to create this interactive map, which allows parents to see how their school district's use of restraint and isolation compares with others in the state. - MAP VIA MISSOURI DISABILITY EMPOWERMENT FOUNDATION
A Missouri nonprofit used new state data to create this interactive map, which allows parents to see how their school district's use of restraint and isolation compares with others in the state.

Forced seclusion and restraint can have a traumatic impact on children, especially for kids with disabilities, who comprise the vast majority of those subjected to this treatment in school.

The practice, sometimes called “isolated time-out,” can result in troubled kids being placed alone in “quiet rooms” that endanger them because adult supervision is often lacking.

But until very recently it was nearly impossible for Missourians to learn which school districts, including their own, used forced seclusion and restraint — and how often in a given year.

That changed early Wednesday morning, when the Missouri Disability Empowerment Foundation was the first to release data collected under a new state law tracking the use of seclusion and restraint in schools for behavioral and disciplinary reasons.

The data shows 4,751 incidents of physical restraint by school districts in the past six months and another 2,880 incidents of kids being placed in forced seclusion. In some cases, the data shows, children were held in physical restraints for more than two hours, although incidents of 30 minutes or less were far more common.

The group also released on its Facebook page an interactive, color-coded map of 518 Missouri school districts, with the districts recording the highest number of cases in red and orange.

The data does not include the St. Louis County Special School District or charter schools.

The Joplin School District, located in Missouri’s far southwestern corner, had by far the most cases of forced seclusion and restraint, with 805, for a rate of 119.2 incidents per 1,000 students. That compares to a much lower state average of 7.7 incidents per 1,000 students.

Joplin’s administration did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday morning.

Restraining and secluding children isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Often it’s done to protect students from harming other students and staff, says Tracey Bloch, the foundation’s director of legislative advocacy.

But too often school staff undertake seclusion and restraint in unsafe ways that endanger children with disabilities such as autism, Bloch says.

“We’re hoping that we can present this information in meaningful ways that would spark families to go to their school board meetings,” she says. “And kind of putting pressure on their own districts, saying, ‘I need to know what you’re going to do about this.’”

In the St. Louis area, the Orchard Farm School District in St. Charles County posted 136 cases of seclusion and restraint, for an incident rate of 72 per 1,000 students.

The next highest incident rate was reported by the Francis Howell School District, also in St. Charles County, which posted an incident rate of 11.57 per 1,000 students based on 170 reported cases of seclusion and restraint in 2022, according to the data.

Some of the St. Louis region’s largest school districts did not report a single incident of seclusion and restraint in 2022. That includes the St. Louis Public Schools and the Parkway, Ladue, University City and Maplewood school districts.

Bloch acknowledged the wide disparities in reported numbers among state school districts raises questions about the quality of reporting, especially since the law requiring this data collection has no enforcement mechanism.

“This is new,” she says. “They maybe misunderstood. There is a small amount of giving the benefit of the doubt.”

The data collection is the result of a law sponsored by State Rep. Ian Mackey, D-Richmond Heights, aimed at limiting the use of seclusion and restraint and making these practices safer.

Mackey’s 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.”

In November 2019, the Chicago Tribune and the not-for-profit online news organization ProPublica, working in tandem, sparked a national conversation when itpublished the results of a scathing investigation into seclusion and restraint practices in Illinois schools.

The story reported that in Illinois “it’s legal for school employees to seclude students in a separate space — to put them in ‘isolated timeout’ — if the students pose a safety threat to themselves or others. Yet every school day, workers isolate children for reasons that violate the law…”

The day after the story appeared, Illinois Gov. J.D. Pritzker issued an emergency ban that ordered the state’s public schools to stop secluding children alone in time-out rooms.

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