House gives preliminary approval to bill protecting students with disabilities

? Parents and advocates of disabled children gathered outside the Kansas House of Representatives chambers on Tuesday afternoon, distributing fliers that told stories of “unsafe restraint and seclusion” in Kansas schools.

There’s Ike, a “typical” 10-year-old from Wichita who wears black glasses and a big smile. One of his parents witnessed a teacher “slamming Ike to the floor while two other teachers held him prone,” according to the flier.

Then there’s Alexis, a 10-year-old from Johnson County with a disability. Alexis was dragged through a hall and outside of the school to a bus by two staff members not trained to use safe restraint. She had to be taken to the emergency room with multiple injuries, including a “significant shoulder sprain, bruises and scrapes,” the flier said.

Meanwhile, the Kansas Legislature preliminarily passed a bill aimed at preventing these incidents. HB 2444 would convert existing guidelines regarding seclusion and restraint in Kansas schools into state law.

“Every single school district will be required to follow the guidelines,” said Rep. Mike Kiegerl, R-Olathe, who has worked on the bill for two years.

The bill prohibits school staff from using physical restraint or placing children in seclusion rooms as a means of discipline or punishment. It also prohibits “mechanical restraint,” using a device or object that limits a child’s movement. The prohibitions exclude any methods used by law enforcement. The bill also does not allow for criminal or civil action to be taken toward teachers.

The bill allows the use of seclusion rooms and restraint on children with a disability when there is an imminent risk of harm or during a physical altercation. Only trained employees can use restraint, and employees must be able to see and hear a child while in seclusion.

“Some kids have been locked in a closet or restrained to the point of being injured,” said Rep. John Rubin, R-Shawnee. “The point of this bill is that ought not to happen.”

But opponents of the bill said it would erode local control from school districts.

“We don’t need to tell teachers, ‘Here’s another tool you can’t use,'” said Rep. Bill Otto, R-LeRoy.

Rep. Ward Cassidy, R-St. Francis, said the existing guidelines were already effective safety measures.

Families Together Inc., an organization that assists parents and their children with disabilities, supports the bill. Lesli Girard, director of the organization’s Topeka operations, said the group received 50 complaints of improper restraint and seclusion from parents in 2011.

“That’s just the tip of it, I think,” Girard said. She said she thought the training teachers received under the law would improve children’s safety.

Efforts to create this legislation began in 2004, said Rocky Nichols, executive director of the Disability Rights Center in Kansas. In 2007, the state adopted the current guidelines.

“We’ve tried to live within the voluntary guidelines, but it’s not working out for parents,” Nichols said.

Kevin Harrell, special education director for Lawrence public schools, said the bill would help Lawrence schools continue to do what’s best for students. He said Lawrence teachers try to avoid using restraint and seclusion rooms, and staff members discuss these practices with parents.

Currently, 36 states have adopted similar laws. The House is expected to formally pass the bill during today’s session and advance it to the Senate, which will decide whether to send the bill to Gov. Sam Brownback.