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Tollison: Re-visit student restraint

Mississippians and others across the U.S. are cringing after watching a video that surfaced last week of a Greenville High School teacher dragging a special needs student by the hair across a gym floor. Many are outraged and angered and several residents of the Washington County town staged a rally last weekend to voice their concerns with the way the Greenville Public School District has handled the matter. Linda Winters-Johnson, who has been identified as the teacher in the video that has been viewed more than six million times, has not been disciplined.

“She has no right to even teach anymore. If she is going to abuse the kids like this, I think her license should be revoked,” Kesha Williams, one of those at the rally who posted the video and also has a child in the same class as the student, told the Delta Democrat Times.

Mississippi Department of Education spokeswoman Jean Cook confirmed to The Associated Press last week that a teacher and student are pictured in the video. She said the state has launched a misconduct investigation, which could lead to the teacher’s license being suspended or revoked. Greenville school officials and police say they’re also investigating.

Others believe the school district needs to move more quickly on the issue and should be more transparent.

“We feel as though they are kind of dragging their feet on it,” Indianola educator Carmen Wyms told the DDT while attending the rally. “A decision should have been made once the video had surfaced.

State senator Gray Tollison (R-Oxford), Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said Wednesday legislation might be needed to ensure the safety of special needs students, despite MDE recently implementing a statewide policy on student restraint and seclusion.

“The Greenville High School incident was disturbing,” Tollison said. “As we begin to consider legislation for the 2017 session, we may need to re-visit this issue and determine if the MDE policy is enough or if legislation is needed to emphasize the importance of using safe and effective best practices in our schools that will insure the protection of our students with special needs.”

Restraint and seclusion

After meeting with several parents with special needs children, including Congressman Gregg Harper, Tollison introduced a bill in the state senate in January 2014 designed to protect students from the use of restraints and seclusion within the public schools of Mississippi. Senate bill 2594 sailed through the senate by a 51-0 margin but never came up for a legislative vote and died in the House.

Tollison’s bill proposed:

•Banning the use of mechanical and chemical restraints, physical restraints that restrict breathing, and aversive interventions that compromise health and safety.

•Banning the use of seclusion that leaves a child alone or locked in a space from which the child is unable to exit.

•Limiting the use of restraint to emergency circumstances in which student behavior poses an imminent danger and less restrictive interventions would not be effective.

•Requiring school personnel who implement the techniques to be trained and certified, and require that they continuously monitor students during interventions;

•Requiring schools to establish procedures to be followed after restraint or seclusion are used, including parental notification;

•Requiring districts to report the yearly number of restraint and seclusion incidents; and

•Calling for a debriefing session following the use of restraint to discover what went wrong as a way to further prevention efforts.

Tollison’s bill was not reintroduced in 2015.

“It is my recollection the MDE may have requested that this issue be addressed administratively and not placed into statute, which MDE has since done,” Tollison said.

Advocates of the student safety act are not giving up and remain hopeful another bill will come up in the 2017 legislative session.

MDE creates policy

Meanwhile, the state department of education in July implemented the first statewide policy on secluding or restraining students that are a danger to themselves or others.

State law allows school staff to intercede in situations wherein students are displaying physically violent behavior or are deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.

“Restraint and/or seclusion should not be used as a punitive measure. We encourage school districts to ensure they have Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) in place. That is a firm foundation for any school environment,” said Dr. Carey Wright, state superintendent of education.

The policy defines restraint and seclusion and outlines requirements for school districts, which include:

•Written local school board-approved policies and procedures that define appropriate means of restraint and seclusion to provide for a safe and orderly education.  The policies and procedures apply to all students in the local school district and must not focus on one or more subgroups of students.

•School districts that permit restraint and seclusion must ensure that staff members are trained in the use of restraint.

•Each time a student is placed in restraint or seclusion, the incident must be documented in the student’s educational record and reported to the MDE and to the parents.

•After an incident of restraint and/or seclusion, all school personnel involved in the incident and appropriate administrative staff shall participate in a debriefing session for the purpose of planning to prevent or at least reduce the re-occurrence of the event.

“Our goal is to ensure the safety and security of all students and school staff while providing school districts with guidance for handling serious student behavioral issues,” Wright said.

Wyms, meanwhile, said she hopes Greenville residents take a stance.

“The school is the place to where children come to feel safe. You should feel safe at school. That is your home away from home. … Children go through a lot of things at home and some of them come to school to find peace.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.