BY LORI HIGGINS
FREE PRESS EDUCATION WRITER
State and federal legislation aims to shine a spotlight on a practice advocates for disabled children say is becoming more of a problem in schools: the use of seclusion and restraint to control students.
Last week, Rep. Deb Kennedy, D-Brownstown Township, introduced a bill in the Michigan Legislature that would bar schools from secluding students -- such as locking them in a room alone because of behavior problems. The bill limits the use of restraint to emergencies.
And on Wednesday, a Muskegon couple spoke at a news conference in Washington, where lawmakers announced similar federal legislation.
The state and federal actions follow a Government Accountability Office report earlier this year in which the investigative agency found hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and death related to seclusion and restraint in the last two decades.
Nicole Danhof-Holden of Muskegon said she discovered her autistic son, Ethan, 4, was being strapped to a high chair routinely when she made a surprise visit to the preschool program last year in the Mona Shores Public Schools. Staff members told her it was a common practice because they didn't have enough staff to monitor her son, who also has speech and language delays. He often wanders and must be watched at all times, she said.
"I am mortified and I'm angry and I'm hurt because I couldn't protect my child, because there's no law and this is legal," said Danhof-Holden.
Mona Shores Superintendent Terry Babbitt said he could not discuss specifics, citing student privacy laws, but said he is "confident that we don't violate any kind of restraint and seclusion policies and guidelines."
The state Board of Education in 2006 adopted guidelines that prohibit the use of both practices except in emergencies, but the policy is voluntary and a report last week by the Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service found the problem persists.
The legislation "strengthens what the board policy was intended to do," said group spokesman Tom Masseau.