Bipartisan lawmakers want solutions in the wake of a WFYI investigation that revealed Indiana schools inaccurately report how often they restrain and forcibly isolate students.
In 2013, a law was passed intended to regulate and curb the use of restraint and seclusion in schools.
These interventions should be used rarely, according to the law, and only as a last resort in situations where the safety of students or others is threatened. But a WFYI investigation found a lack of oversight from the Indiana Department of Education means it’s unclear whether the law has had its intended effect.
Rep. Ed Delaney (D-Indianapolis), said the state should find a way to hold schools accountable for failing to report these incidents.
“We can deal with structural problems, and I think mainly through funding, and through an honest conversation with [the Department of Education], and the school superintendents about what do you need, in order to report accurately, what do you need in order to reduce the number of times you resort to these things?”
Delaney said he also wants the Indiana Department of Education to publicly post restraint and seclusion incident data in a manner that makes it easily accessible to the general public.
WFYI’s reporting found that incidents of restraint and seclusion submitted to the DOE by school districts are hard to find on the state website and there is no public database for this information. WFYI published a searchable database of seclusion and restraint data for Indiana schools from 2018-2022
“That's a no brainer,” he said. “I want all this data available, I want parents of kids who are disabled to be able to get this, get it easily, and not have to depend on WFYI and for a lot of inquiries to get it done ”
WFYI previously reported the DOE did not audit school's seclusion and restraint data as required by a 2018 state rule. In wake of the reporting, the DOE is now conducting audits for the past three school years.
Rep. Becky Cash (R-Zionsville) wrote in a statement that she’s alarmed by the issues facing children with disabilities, including those detailed in WFYI’s reporting.
“I am heartbroken to hear of the stories highlighted in the recent coverage and the many other stories that parents are sharing with me. I am committed to doing whatever I can as a legislator to protect all of our children,” she wrote.
Sen. Andrea Hunley (D-Indianapolis) wrote in a statement that “by failing to provide oversight and accountability for our most vulnerable children, the state has failed families.”
Hunley, a former Indianapolis Public Schools principal, said she’s begun looking into solutions to address the lack of state oversight over the use and reporting of restraint and seclusion in schools.
“Whether it is a matter of enforcing current law or introducing new legislation, I will be advocating for action to ensure all Hoosier students are provided a safe and nurturing learning environment that recognizes and accommodates any challenges they are facing,” she wrote.
WFYI’s reporting also uncovered the state’s inability to hold schools accountable for violations of restraint and seclusion policies. This leaves parents with few options for recourse other than filing a lawsuit against a school district.
Mark Russell, director of advocacy and family services for the Indianapolis Urban League, said it’s tragic that families need to take legal action to protect their children because of “rights that are written in law, but are not enforced.”
Russell said parents who believe their children have been improperly restrained or secluded at school should file complaints to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. He also encouraged families to reach out to the Indiana Civil Rights Commission if they believe their children have been discriminated against.
Russell also lamented that the seclusion and restraint data that is collected by the state does not include demographic data, like a students’ race or disability status. The state only requires schools to submit the number of incidents of restraint and seclusion that happen.
The lack of demographic data means it’s impossible to decipher whether children of color or children with disabilities are disproportionately subject to restraint and seclusion in Indiana schools.
He said parents and advocates for students with disabilities should lobby elected officials to address the issues around restraint and seclusion in Indiana schools.
“People need to bring these complaints to the attention of their legislators, whatever their political affiliation may be, to get some movement on this,” Russell said. “Right now, the situation is unacceptable.”