State lawmakers prefile bills on controversial school policies

1 month 3 weeks 1 day ago Monday, December 02 2019 Dec 2, 2019 Monday, December 02, 2019 11:05:00 PM CST December 02, 2019 in News
By: Shoshana Dubnow, KOMU 8 Reporter and Tran Nguyen, Columbia Missourian Reporter
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JEFFERSON CITY - School policies that have sparked heated opposition among Columbia parents of students with disabilities could be coming under review next year in the state legislature.

Among the hundreds of bills that lawmakers announced Monday that they are filing for the legislative session that starts Jan. 8, is one from local Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport, and a bill introduced by a bipartisan duo of St. Louis-area lawmakers that would set stricter guidelines on when school officials can restrain students or isolate them in “quiet rooms.”

Columbia Public Schools’ policies came under heated criticism at a marathon September school board meeting where more than 100 parents, students and advocates spoke; afterward, the school board postponed any decisions in favor of sending proposed revisions back to its policy committee.

If some state lawmakers have their way, the school board will be getting new marching orders from Jefferson City.

Seclusion and restraint policy

Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, and Rep. Ian Mackey, D-St. Louis, are co-sponsoring a bill that would strengthen law on seclusion and restraint policies in schools.

The bipartisan bill came after Bailey heard the “horrific” accounts from families who testified during the last session when Mackey introduced a similar bill.

“This is medieval practice, really,” Bailey said. “There are so many other better methods out there that don’t harm our children.”

She also noted that the practice disproportionately affects students with disabilities. According to the Civil Rights Data Collection, African American students are also disproportionately disciplined in this way.

The bill aims to provide uniformity in guidelines for use of the practice, defines the terms “seclusion” and “restraint,” and implements a protocol to inform parents when the practice is used.

“Right now, there’s no mechanism of governmental oversight on this issue,” Mackey said. “This bill will provide that.”

Mackey noted that there won’t be changes in this session’s bill, but he’s looking into a “stronger bill” that would ultimately ban the use of isolation rooms. He cited the reaction in Illinois after ProPublica and The Chicago Tribune published a report describing the use of seclusion and isolation rooms.

Federal law doesn’t regulate seclusion and restraint policies, and while many states have adopted laws to increase protections for students and students with disabilities, Missouri continues to have some of the least restrictive seclusion and restraint laws in the country.

Missouri school districts are required to have a policy on seclusion and restraint, but school officials receive little oversight or regulation of the content of the policies.

Some school districts, including Columbia’s, have already followed Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s model policy, but others don’t have any protection for students. The lack of regulation has led to abuse of the practice, especially for students with disabilities, Bailey said.

Columbia Public Schools was set to vote on a number of changes in its policy in September, including the definition of seclusion, the elimination of an annual training requirement, and the extended timeline for teachers to complete an incident report. All changes were drafted based on the Missouri School Boards’ Association’s recommendations, the superintendent said.

Recording meetings in public schools

Basye is filing a bill on recording parent-teacher conferences that would reverse the current policy — in effect in every Missouri school district — prohibiting parents from recording such meetings.

The bill aims to allow such recordings, particularly in cases of Individualized Education Program meetings for students with special needs, Basye said.

“The main reason is to be able to refer back to what was discussed,” Basye said, adding that IEP meetings could last hours with lots of information that makes it hard for parents to follow.

Parents and advocates in Columbia have long advocated for allowing recording in IEP meetings, testifying that these meetings are not only complicated but also emotional at times. A recording of the meetings would help them listen back or discuss it with their spouse who might not be able to make the meetings.

Missouri Disability Empowerment President Robyn Schelp, who consulted Basye on the bill, said the change would allow recording but not require it.

“Not every family will choose to record, but it is up to them,” she said. “And it’s also up to the school to choose whether they want to record.”

Schelp, who testified in support of recording meetings at the September board meeting, said Monday that Columbia school officials shouldn’t wait for the legislature.

“School districts have the power to change its policy now; they don’t have to wait for the bill to pass,” Schelp said. “They can do it to address issues that are happening locally now.”

Columbia Public Schools currently prohibits recordings at meetings with some exceptions. School officials’ concerns about changing policy include additional costs to train staff and maintain recordings.

At the September meeting, the board presented an anonymous survey of 370 teachers, two-thirds of whom opposed allowing recording of meetings. The district has since formed a working group to further discuss the policy.

“We respect the decision to take these policies to the state level and we will wait to see how they turn out,” CPS spokesperson Michelle Baumstark said in an emailed statement to the Missourian. “This will create an opportunity for state legislators to have the same critical and difficult discussions about the importance of student privacy and the management and disclosure of individual student records.”

Baumstark added that the district will continue discussing the policy to report back to the board. The working group has met once since September, according to Michelle Ribaudo, president of the Columbia, MO Special Education Parent Teacher Association.

Ribaudo said the organization continues to work closely with CPS on its recording policy.

“We have been supporting the idea of allowing recording,” Ribaudo said. “The bill would help both parents and educators.”

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