Madison schools restrained or confined students more than 1,200 times during the last school year. Over 200 of those incidents involved students with disabilities. That’s according to a report released this week by the state’s Department of Public Instruction.
The report, which was released on Tuesday, shows that nearly half of Wisconsin’s 2,248 schools restrained or confined at least one student during the last school year.
A student restraint is defined as a restriction that immobilizes or reduces a student’s ability to freely move their torso, arms, legs or head.
A seclusion is defined as involuntary confinement, apart from other students, in a room that a student is physically prevented from leaving.
Nicki Vander Meulen, a member of the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education. She says the high incident rate for Madison, which ranked 40th on a per-pupil basis out of over 400 districts in the state, was due to the lax nature of Madison’s restraint and seclusion policy.
“As an autistic individual, I wish I could say that I’m surprised. I’m not,” Vander Meulen said.
According to Vander Meulen, while schools had to report incident data to the DPI, the data remained confidential, and parental notification could take up to 5 days after an incident.
“So we had rules, but no consequences,” Vander Meulen said, “and that led to children getting seriously hurt, because if you have a rule with no consequences, no one follows it.”
Back in September, the school board unanimously passed new policies to align with a new state law that changed requirements for the use of seclusion and physical restraint in schools.
Among those MMSD changes was the banning of particular methods to restrain students. Another change ensured secluded students are supervised and can’t be put in locked rooms. The new policy also shortened the required reporting timeline to parents, from 5 days to 1 day, and no longer allowed schools to report incidents anonymously to the state Department of Public Instruction.
Vander Meulen says her drive for the policy change came from her own experiences as an individual with autism.
“Knowing that I could have been restrained like that is a very frightening thought,” Vander Meulen said, “because, simply, it could have been me.”
Vander Meulen says she expects the rate of incidents to decline after students return to school, with staff de-escalation training already beginning.
“I think we can get there,” Vander Meulen said.