COLUMBIA – Misuse of seclusion and restraint practices in Missouri has been a big problem for decades. On Saturday, new laws go into effect that add more regulation.

The Missouri legislature passed House Bill 432 in the last session, which includes provisions to strengthen seclusion and restraint policies in schools, in a big win for advocates of children with disabilities.

Those provisions came from House Bill 387, which was sponsored by Rep. Dottie Bailey (R-Eureka) and aimed specifically at this issue. 

"We're not going to let this happen to the kids anymore,” Bailey said. “It's a systemic problem that targets disadvantaged children.” 

According to the latest data from the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, there were over 101,000 reports of seclusion and restraint nationally. Of that total, 78% were students with disabilities, despite only making up 13% of all students. 

"Disproportionately seclusion restraint is used on kiddos with disabilities, mainly autism or some behavioral issue, and African American kids,” Bailey said. 

The legislation establishes state guidelines for these practices in schools. Parents will get more transparency, require records be kept and annual training and protection of whistleblowers. Missouri’s Department of Early and Secondary Education (DESE) does offer a model policy, but it is up to individual school districts to establish the rules on seclusion and restraint.

It applies to all public, private and charter schools in Missouri.

Many who have been working to push the legislation claim practice is shown to be ineffective and detrimental to children who experience it.

"The evidence on seclusion and restraint is that it is traumatic and it doesn't change behaviors,” Missouri Disability Empowerment (MoDE) President Robyn Schelp said. “It shouldn't be used as a form of discipline.” 

For Becca Wilkinson’s son Ryphath, who attended two schools in the Columbia Public School District, it was a form of punishment. Ryphath has autism and was not receiving resources for his success.

"He was in isolation rooms on a daily basis," Wilkinson said. "His mental health completely deteriorated."

Included in the new law are rules about documenting the use of seclusion and restraint in schools, something that didn’t exist when Wilkinson went looking for answers.

"The documentation that I got by the vice principal’s own admission was spotty,” Wilkinson said. “She admitted that they didn't have a good system in place, and that it wasn't a comprehensive record of what was happening to him."

Ryphath has since switched to homeschooling, but the issues have continued at CPS. In May 2020, the district faced pressure to cancel their contract with Catapult Learning. The outsourced company faced allegations of abuse at the district's Center of Responsive Education (CORE).

High Road School of Boone County, operated by Catapult’s parent company Special Education Services Inc. (SESI), is currently contracted out by CPS on an annual basis. 

Across Missouri and around the country, students face this same issue. Frankie Bono was a student at Francis Howell School District in St. Charles when he was placed in what he called the “blue room.”

“My son was locked in a closet,” Bono’s mother Tracy said. “He didn't have the skills and ability to appropriately communicate what was really happening at school.”

Frankie has since outgrown his communications struggles, but not the trauma caused by his experience. 

“We were driving in the car recently and a song came on the radio, and he just started sobbing,” Bono said. “That was a song that had been playing in the room, one of the times they had tackled him, held his face against the cold floor, grabbed him by the hair and dragged him into the seclusion room."

The passage of the bill will not only protect children but help promote understanding. 

"Humans are social animals. They just are, especially extroverted people such as myself,” Ryphath said at a 2019 CPS Board of Education meeting. “It's just not humane to trap children up."

The new law does not change the way investigations are conducted. Currently, if a parent or guardian suspects abuse and reports it to the school, the district determines whether it wants to conduct an internal investigation or bring in the Department of Social Services.

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