PORTLAND - Peter McCormack moves around the room as if the information he's about to share can't wait to get out.
In front of him are 17 Portland teachers, education technicians, social workers and others who have signed up for a three-day training course in how to use Therapeutic Crisis Intervention techniques in school.
Some of them will stay for a fourth day to learn how to do physical restraints or holds, a controversial practice allowed in Maine schools when students are in danger of hurting themselves or others and all other efforts to calm them have failed.
"You are the best tool in any crisis situation," McCormack tells the teachers. "There are so many things you can do before resorting to physical intervention. Restraint truly is the intervention of last resort."
McCormack invited The Portland Press Herald to cover a recent training session in the hope of shedding light on a practice that is being scrutinized here in Maine and across the nation. Pressure is on to reduce the use of restraints, and many Maine schools are responding with increased training in alternative intervention methods and positive student supports.
In general, the methods call for building personal relationships with students, setting clear expectations for behavior, recognizing when and why students may be struggling or acting out, and responding with logic and compassion rather than anger and contempt.
"When a child is upset, it didn't happen out of nowhere, folks," McCormack says during the first day of training. "There's always a cause. It may not be right in front of you, but it's there. You have to know your child. And depending on your response, you're either going to throw gasoline on the situation or you're going to throw water on the situation."
Superintendent Jim Morse has charged McCormack and East End Principal Marcia Gendron, also newly appointed from her former job as principal of Reiche Community School, with greatly reducing the number of restraints at East End.
"More often than not, the use of restraint only escalates a situation," Morse said. "Our goal is to keep kids in school and keep them learning. We want teachers to have the skill sets in their toolbox to de-escalate disruptive situations and help youngsters refocus."
Morse said he wants to reduce the overall number of physical restraints in Portland schools, which last year included seven at Longfellow Elementary School, four at Riverton Community School, three at Lyseth Elementary School and two at Moore Middle School. Nine other Portland public schools reported no restraints.
Moreover, Morse said, he wants all Portland schools to have a more positive and personal approach to behavior and discipline. With that in mind, he's moving to adopt a federally endorsed system known as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports across Maine's largest school district.