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Tim Post, MPR News 90.3 FM, Published February 08 2013

Minnesota wants to extend use of controversial restraint method in schools

The Minnesota Department of Education is recommending schools be allowed to continue the use of a controversial physical restraint, used to subdue or calm agitated students, until 2017.

Current state law would ban the practice, called prone restraint, in August.

Some advocates of disabled children worry the move puts students in danger. Almost like a wrestling hold, it is used on students who threaten to hurt themselves or someone else.

Often used on children with severe mental health disabilities, it involves grabbing a student’s hands and feet and holding the student face down on the floor.

Sue Abderholden, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said school officials don’t want to use prone restraint, but sometimes it’s their only option.

“We have situations where children really become a danger to themselves or others and something has to be done,” she said. “And they might have tried other things, and nothing’s working, and you need to keep that child safe.”

Several states have banned prone restraints because of deaths or injuries primarily due to breathing being restricted. There have been no such reports in Minnesota.

According to state law, school staff members using prone restraint cannot sit or lie on top of a student or do anything to restrict their breathing.

Dan Stewart, an attorney with the Minnesota Disability Law Center, still worries for the safety of students, especially those who are overweight or have asthma.

“Sometimes even when the procedure is done exactly right there is still stress put on the body and that has an effect on breathing,” Stewart said.

Last year, school officials in Minnesota used the method 1,756 times, according to a report to lawmakers this week by the Minnesota Department of Education.

Prone restraints are often used several times during a single incident before a student calms down.

Those cases involved only 256 students in the entire state. Six students make up a quarter of the incidents.

Abderholden said the fact that prone restraint is being used on a small group of students over and over points to a problem.

Nevertheless, Abderholden favors continued use of prone restraints, at least for the next few years.

During that time she wants educators and lawmakers to come up with new ways to handle out-of-control students. Instead of physically restraining students, she wants to see early interventions, methods to calm students before physical restraint is necessary.

Current Minnesota law prohibits the use of prone restraints after Aug. 1.

For the method to continue, lawmakers would need to change state statute this session.

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