Restrained: State reports thousands of cases in Wisconsin schools

MADISON, Wis. — With all the challenges facing Wisconsin schools, one issue has flown under the radar: seclusion and restraint. They are controversial methods of reacting to student behavior only to be used as a “last resort,” but they happen all the time.

New data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction reports 4,949 incidents of restraint and 4,314 incidents of seclusion in 2021. More than 80% of incidents involved students with disabilities, up a few percentage points from 2020.

The report also includes incidents broken down to include every school in Wisconsin.

“Each of these data points represents a lived experience of the student and the staff surrounding that student,” says Abigail Swetz with DPI. “We’re talking about a last resort that has very clear parameters. Seclusion and restraint can only be used when student behavior presents clear present and imminent risk to physical safety.”

It’s happening most to elementary school students. 2019 Wisconsin Act 118 requires school districts to report seclusion and restraint data to DPI.

“These are outdated practices that still remain constant in no geographic location. It’s widespread,” says Owen Tortora with DPI. “There are a number of factors that can explain this, but the fact ultimately remains that it’s younger students with (Individualized Education Programs), and that can stay through them through their K-12 experience.”

Nora Rabel has been regularly subjected to seclusion and restraint throughout her schooling. The 16-year-old has Down Syndrome and autism. Surveillance video from the school shows staff picking her up off the floor, and dragging her through the hallways.

Notes from staff claim Nora would “lash out” at staff members. They wrote in their notes that Nora spit, kicked, hit and attempted to bite.

“You always have that gut feeling that something is not right, something is not being told,” says Nora’s father Joshua Rabel.

Rabel believes school staff went too far.

“That’s not about safety. That’s about (teacher’s) ego,” Rabel said.

Disability rights advocate Joanne Juhnke works with families impacted by seclusion and restraint.

“The ideal approach involves not letting it get to that point in the first place,” says Juhnke, a special education specialist with Disability Rights Wisconsin.

She’d like to see seclusion outlawed but agrees there are situations restraint my be needed.

“(Schools need) sufficient staff, consistent staff, smaller classes, mental health support,” says Juhnke. “There’s not just one systemic failure, but many along the way.”

Then there are the staff members.

“Educational support professionals are some of the lowest paid employees in our school district. You could get paid more working in other school districts or even at Target, Wal-Mart, Culver’s or Kwik Trip,” says Michael Jones with Madison Teachers Inc.

He’d like to see more training in de-escalation techniques, but overworked staff may not be able to handle another “top-down initiative.” Instead, a grassroots-style movement would be more effective.

“I think you would get a lot more buy-in, but also have a lot more success,” Jones says.

DPI offers a list of resources for schools on this issue.

There’s also the Keeping All Students Safer Act in Washington. The legislation, which would prohibit seclusion and aim to prevent and reduce restraint in schools, has been stuck in a Senate committee since last summer.

Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin is a co-sponsor of the bill, but her office declined an on-camera interview on the subject.