More than 2,000 Connecticut students restrained or secluded in 2020-21, new data shows

Practices used 23,511 times that year amid remote learning during pandemic

A seclusion room in a Connecticut school.

A seclusion room in a Connecticut school.

Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate

More than 2,000 Connecticut special education students were restrained or secluded a total of 23,511 times in 2020-21, new state data shows, even as many school districts employed remote or hybrid instruction for much of the year.

Use of the controversial techniques led to 134 injuries, including six that met the criteria for "serious" injury, the data showed.

Advocates continue to urge schools to reduce the use of restraint and seclusion, which they describe as dangerous and even traumatic for students and staff.

"They are known to be harmful to children, to be harmful to adults, to be traumatizing and [to be] destructive of the relationship between adult and children," said Sarah Eagan, Connecticut's child advocate. "And they do not, in themselves, teach skills to children."

State data show over 500 students were restrained more than 10 times during the school year, while 80 students were restrained or secluded more than 50 times. Though most incidents lasted 20 minutes or fewer, several hundred stretched past 40 minutes or even an hour.

Under state law, restraint refers to physically restricting students' arms, leg or head or involuntarily moving them from one place to another. Seclusion refers to confining students in rooms that they cannot physically leave. Both restraint and seclusion are legally prohibited except in emergency situations.

Last year, a Hearst Newspapers investigation revealed that students nationwide are restrained or secluded hundreds of thousands of times each year, resulting in thousands of injuries and, on rare occasions, death.

In Connecticut, schools reported restraining and secluding special education students tens of thousands of time annually over the past decade, with the techniques disproportionately used on Black students and those with autism.

While some teachers and administrators argue that restraint and seclusion are necessary to manage difficult students, advocates say schools use the practices excessively, escalating situations instead of defusing them while risking injuries to staff and children. They point to alternative models designed to avoid physical intervention through deescalation tactics and push for schools to move toward a more proactive approach.

Federal and state education officials recommend the practices should be used only in the case of emergencies, and some have pushed in recent years to reduce their use. Eagan said Tuesday said restraint and seclusion indicate a breakdown of a instruction and "should be avoided whenever possible."

Though use of the interventions was down in Connecticut in 2020-21 due to the prevalence of remote and hybrid schooling, the state reported 10,386 instances of emergency restraint, 7,901 instances of seclusion and 4,774 instances of forcible escort (categorized as a separate type of restraint) over the course of 2020-21.

Many of the same disparities present in previous years reoccurred in 2020-21. Black students accounted for 21 percent of restraint and seclusion incidents despite making up only 15.6 percent of those in special education, while students identified as having "two or more races" were over-represented as well.

"The race issue remains prominent," Eagan said. "It's mostly boys of color that are represented here."

Students with autism were also disproportionately likely to be restrained or secluded, accounting for 41.5 percent of emergency restraints, 37.7 percent of seclusion incidents and 30.7 percent of forcible escorts. 

As is typical, restraint and seclusion were not distributed evenly across Connecticut schools. Approved private special education programs were particularly likely to use physical interventions, with several schools that specialize in high-need students reporting 1,000 incidents apiece, though the practices remain common in public schools as well.

Among public districts, Meriden led with 1,435 restraint and seclusion incidents, nearly twice its total from the longer 2019-20 school year and more than three times the total in any other district. Last year, a Meriden administrator attributed the district's frequent use of restraint and seclusion to the district's focus on educating students in the city instead of sending them to specialized schools elsewhere.

No other public school district reported more than 400 instances of restraint and seclusion, though 19 others reported incident counts in the triple digits.

At the other end of the spectrum, dozens of districts reported few or no uses of restraint and seclusion, which advocates say could be a signal that they're doing some right — or that they're simply failing to record incidents as they occur.

Officials from Connecticut's State Department of Education say the agency monitors patterns in restraint and seclusion data, with a particular focus on districts that have shown notable increases or decreases.

In a statement Wednesday, a spokesperson said the agency "remains committed to supporting student and educator safety as an essential foundation for learning and we continue to do so within the confines of our statutory authority."

"Our state has taken multiple steps, including providing training and support, to ensure that restraint and seclusion is utilized as a last resort and only in response to an emergency situation in which the student or others are in immediate or imminent risk of injury," he said.