A prominent organization of social conservatives not only aims to derail legislation aimed at curbing abuse of school-age students, it is attempting to do so by attacking the sexual orientation of a high-ranking Department of Education official.
The Family Research Council (FRC) wants the Senate to defeat the Preventing Harmful Restraint and Seclusion in Schools Act (H.R. 4247). The House approved the bill Wednesday by a vote of 262 to 153. It now moves to the Senate for consideration.
The legislation came about in response to a government investigation last year that found widespread allegations that children were being abused through misuses of restraint and seclusion in classrooms, according to a statement from the House Education & Labor Committee.
The Government Accountability Office report released last spring exposed hundreds of alleged cases of schoolchildren being abused as a result of inappropriate uses of restraint and seclusion, often involving untrained staff. The victims were children as young as three and four, students with disabilities and without disabilities, who attended both public and private schools. In a number of cases, children died. In some of the cases GAO investigated, ropes, duct tape, and chairs with straps and bungee cords were used to restrain or isolate young children.
According to a report from the federal Department of Education, state laws on restraint and seclusion vary widely. Nineteen states have no laws at all. Of the 31 states that do have laws in place, many are not comprehensive enough to protect all students, in every kind of school.
The Keeping All Students Safe Act would establish, for the first time, minimum federal standards to provide equal protections to all students, in every state across the country. It would make clear that physical restraint or locked seclusion should be used only when there is imminent danger of injury and only when imposed by trained staff.
It would prohibit mechanical restraints, such as strapping children to chairs, misusing therapeutic equipment to punish students or duct-taping parts of their bodies and any restraint that restricts breathing.It would also prohibit chemical restraint, which are medications used to control behavior that are not consistent with a doctor’s prescription.
The bill would prohibit school staff from including restraint or seclusion as planned interventions in student’s education plans, known as individualized education programs (IEPs). It would also require schools to notify parents immediately after incidents when restraint or seclusion was used. In many of the cases GAO examined, parents only learned that their child was being restrained or secluded from a whistle-blowing teacher – or when their child came home bruised, according to the committee statement.
The FRC complains, however, that the bill would significantly increase federal oversight of schools that receive federal funding, including many parochial and independent private schools.
“This bill is another example of misguided federal legislation. It increases federal paperwork and oversight to the point that there could be substantial interference with faith-based education,” says FRC President Tony Perkins. “Teachers generally care for their students. Should they be punished because a few teachers overstep already accepted guidelines for how teachers and students can interact? A federal mandate is unnecessary.”
Perkins goes on to criticize unrelated matters, such as a decision by Congress to shut down a Washington, DC, school vouchers program — and attacks Kevin Jennings, assistant deputy secretary at the Education Department, for being gay. Before joining the Obama administration, Jennings was the former executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), an organization that works to make schools safe for all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
“If Congress is concerned about student safety, it should begin by removing ‘Safe Schools Czar’ Kevin Jennings from office, not adding to his federal oversight of education,” Perkins says. “Kevin Jennings, as the founder of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), played an integral role in promoting homosexuality in public schools. His history demonstrates disregard for our obligations to safeguard the health and well-being of the student population. He is unfit for the post to which he’s been assigned, and he should be removed at once.”
Despite Perkins’ attacks, the Preventing Harmful Restraint and Seclusion in Schools Act is not a partisan Democratic bill.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) was an original sponsor of the legislation.
“I am genuinely pleased by the House’s bipartisan support for H.R. 4247, the Keeping All Students Safe in Schools Act,” she says. “This critical piece of legislation confronts the unimaginable situation in schools across the country whereby some of our nation’s most vulnerable children are treated in an inhumane and degrading manner. The thousands of incidents reported by GAO and others together with the piecemeal approach taken by the states demonstrates the need for federal guidance. I’ve been proud to work with many organizations and this is a victory for them. I thank [Education & Labor] Chairman [George] Miller [D-Calif.] for his leadership and my colleagues for their support. Together, we will work to ensure this bill is passed by the Senate.”
The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.