Restraint and isolation in Washington schools: What these practices are, how they are being used and what needs to change 

Monday, February 6, 2023
One parent recounted their son saying that he couldn’t breathe, and that he thought he was going to die. Another described how her kindergartener was placed in isolation, often for “cussing,“ many times a week for months. A survivor described witnessing restraint at a non-public agency as “an everyday thing” in all classrooms. 
Holding students down so they can’t move, locking them in rooms by themselves so they can’t leave, or using pepper spray or medications on them to control their behavior are examples of restraint and isolation, and their use is widespread in schools across the state, mostly against elementary (K-5) students. In 2019, under its federal access authority, Disability Rights Washington (DRW) began monitoring schools to review their use of restraint and isolation. After pausing in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they resumed monitoring in 2021, and partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU-WA) to conduct a more in-depth examination of the practices in Washington schools. 
That monitoring and research has culminated in a report by DRW and ACLU-WA, entitled “Coming Into the Light: An Examination of Restraint and Isolation Practices in Washington Schools, which illuminates the reasons school personnel use to justify restraint and isolation, the prevalence of the practices, the students most impacted, and the ways in which restraint and isolation impact young people and their families. The report also shows what schools are getting right, especially in terms of reducing these practices, and how their example can illuminate a pathway for all Washington schools. 

What constitutes restraint and isolation? 

Restraint refers to when students are physically immobilized by school staff. It is a crisis management strategy involving physically intervening to control a student by restricting freedom of movement. Restraint may utilize a physical hold, restraint device, or the use of chemicals, such as pepper spray. When restrained, students cannot move freely. 
Isolation refers to when students are placed in a small, confined room that they cannot leave. Isolation rooms are typically built for the sole purpose of confining students. The rooms are often closet sized and padded with a thick door that generally contains an exterior lock. They are often found in special education classrooms. 

What does state law allow? 

Washington law states: “School district personnel are prohibited from physically restraining or isolating any student, except when the student’s behavior poses an imminent likelihood of serious harm.” 
Likelihood of serious harm means a substantial risk that: 
  • Physical harm will be inflicted by a person upon his or her own person,” ( i.e. suicide or self-harm) 
  • “Physical harm will be inflicted upon another person,” (e.g. behavior that places fear of harm in others, like school fights or threat of assault on the teacher) 
  • “Physical harm will be inflicted upon property of others, as evidenced by behavior that has caused substantial loss or damage to the property of others,” (e.g. throwing a computer or shattering a window) 
  • Threats to physical safety of another person when one has a history of violent acts 

What are the effects of restraint and isolation on students? 

Restraint and isolation are traumatic experiences that can make it harder for students to manage their behavior or engage in classroom settings.  
The Washington Legislature has acknowledged that these practices yield no academic or therapeutic benefits in school outside of immediate safety.1 At the national level, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights said in a 2022 guidance that they are not aware of evidence that finds restraint or seclusion to be effective.2 It also warned schools that continued use could serve as evidence of discrimination against students with disabilities.  

Report findings 

The report's findings are based on monitoring at 34 schools or educational programs, 144 interviews with survivors, parents, staff, teachers, and administrators, as well as statewide data on restraint and isolation in schools.  
Schools are using restraint and isolation when there is no imminent likelihood of serious harm. 
The report found that school personnel and administrators use restraint and isolation in circumstances that don’t rise to the threshold of “imminent likelihood of serious harm” and therefore are not permissible by law. According to the Washington Office of the Education Ombuds (OEO), “schools in Washington State are not allowed to use restraint or isolation as a form of discipline or punishment, or as a way to correct a child’s behavior.3 Nevertheless, the interviews show that restraint and isolation were often used as classroom management tools, to induce compliance or otherwise punish or discipline students for non-compliant behavior, in violation of state law. Students were subject to restraint and isolation for ripping art off a bulletin board, spitting, swearing, or not following directions, among other reasons that did not pose even a remote possibility of physical harm to anyone. 
Schools practice restraint and isolation in ways that don’t meet legal requirements
The research shows that restraint and isolation frequently continue well after any risk of serious harm has dissipated. The OEO states that restraint and isolation “can continue only as long as the emergency continues” and the use of restraint or isolation “must be stopped as soon as the likelihood of serious harm has ended.”4 However, during interviews, school personnel discussed situations where after being restrained, students walked by themselves into the isolation room or were escorted in. The implication here is that the students were isolated even after the emergency had clearly ended. 
The researchers also found:  
  • Some schools had locks on isolation rooms that did not require adult presence to activate, in violation of Washington laws that require an adult to be present when an isolation room is in use.  
  • Washington law requires isolation rooms to be, “ventilated, lighted, and temperature controlled … for purposes of human occupancy.” Not all isolation rooms observed during monitoring were lit and survivors told stories about rooms that were so cold they wore winter coats in anticipation of isolation. 
  • School personnel did not follow notification protocols, which require that parents/guardians be notified of restraint and isolation in a timely manner

Restraint and isolation have lasting harmful effects on students

Restraint and isolation are framed as practices that help keep students safe, but they have lasting detrimental effects on students. The report shows these practices are disabling, and emotionally and psychologically damaging. They profoundly impact students years after occurrence and well into adulthood. 
The researchers found that restraint and isolation cause physical harm/injuries, exacerbate behavioral and mental health problems, erode trust of adult relationships and educational institutions, and traumatize students. Much of this trauma stemmed from experiencing restraint and isolation as punishment. Students, parents, and survivors all described restraint and isolation as punitive and penal experiences. In vivid detail, they recalled isolation rooms as small, uncomfortable, dark, cold, and ultimately evocative of a jail cell. 

Restraint and isolation harm vulnerable students

The impacts of restraint and isolation fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable students in our state. Students with disabilities, Black, multiracial, homeless, low-income, elementary, male and foster care involved students experience the highest rates of restraint and isolation. Students and families reported time and time again that the use of these tactics are common, sometimes even daily experiences, even though Washington law requires restraint and isolation to be rare. 
State data reporting requirements fail to convey the prevalence of restraint and isolation practices, who they harm, and the extent of that harm.  
Data can be a helpful tool for tracking and ultimately reducing restraint and isolation use. However, the state’s data reporting requirements don’t apply to all educational programs that use restraint and isolation, leaving large gaps in our understanding of these practices.  As many as 60 schools failed to report restraint and isolation in the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s most recent collection. Moreover, neither Educational Service District based schools (ESDs) nor non-public agencies (NPAs), which serve some of the most marginalized students in our state, report program-level restraint and isolation data to the state.
Injury data shows significantly more reports of staff injuries than student injuries. For example, in 2019-20, school staff injuries resulting from restraint or isolation were reported at a rate 3 to 6 times higher than student injuries. This gap suggests injury reporting requirements don’t adequately account for all student injuries. Staff have the discretion to decide what is and isn’t an injury, and students are expected to self-report to the school. There is also no formal definition of what constitutes an injury; this is a decision made by the local education agency. 
The lack of adequate data limits transparency into restraint and isolation practices and systematically disadvantage our state’s most vulnerable students. 

Report recommendations 

Based on the report findings, the ACLU-WA and DRW make the following recommendations: 
  • Eliminate isolation in schools 
  • Invest in mental health and trauma supports for students, families, and educators. 
  • Ban mechanical and chemical restraint and clarify the limits on restraint. 
  • Invest in and fund training for alternative approaches to restraint and isolation. 
  • Modify data reporting requirements and use data for restraint and isolation reduction  
This session, the legislature introduced HB 1479 / SB 5559. This bill seeks to eliminate the practice of isolation of students in schools. It also seeks to make the use of restraint safer by eliminating both mechanical and chemical restraint in Washington schools. 
SB 5559 will be heard Monday, Feb. 6 at 1:30 p.m. in the Senate Early Learning and K-12 committee. You can watch the hearing here