New legislation titled the Preventing Harmful Restraint and Seclusion in the Schools Act, H.R. 4247, S. 2860, was introduced in Congress this week. The bill come in response to report released last spring by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) which detailed hundreds of cases of the inappropriate use of restraint and seclusion in schools, with a disproportionate number of the victims being students with disabilities. If it is successfully passed, this legislation would provide the first federal standards regarding the use of restraint and seclusion and schools; standards which would apply to all public schools, private schools, and preschools receiving federal funds.
- Restricting the use of physical restraint and locked seclusion to instances where there is imminent danger of injury, and requiring that these interventions be imposed only by trained staff;
- Completely outlawing the use of mechanical restraints;
- Requiring that schools inform parents after seclusion or restraint interventions have been used; and
- Requiring states to develop policies, procedures, and monitoring and enforcement systems necessary to comply with the standards of the law.
The “persistently dangerous” schools component of No Child Left Behind allows parents to transfer their child out of a school that a state designates as persistently dangerous. States have rather wide discretion in how they will define “persistently dangerous”. The Virginia Department of Education has decided that persistently dangerous schools will be “identified based on school safety data such as the types and occurrences of violent criminal acts in public elementary schools or secondary schools.” The Georgia Department of Education has a pretty specific formula for determining which schools will be designated as such (for Georgia’s policy, see www.gdoe.net/gepb/policy/GEPBPolicy_400/GEPB_471.pdf). In North Carolina, the State Board of Education has defined persistently dangerous to mean, “A public school in which the conditions during the past two school years continually exposed its students to injury from violent criminal offenses and it is an elementary, middle or secondary public school in which a total of five or more violent criminal offenses were committed per 1000 students (0.5 or more per 100 students) in two consecutive school years.”
The North Carolina School Violence Prevention Act (Senate Bill 526) passed its second reading in the state House yesterday. North Carolina is one of only a hand full of states that have yet to put an anti-bullying law on the books, but would be among the first to pass a bill that spells out protections for children bullied because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The act would require school employees to report all instances of bullying, and require local school districts to develop and implement policies for responding to such incidents. Few lawmakers have questioned the wisdom of requiring school districts to respond to school bullying. However, intense and largely partisan debate has ensued in the House around the specific protections for children bullied because of sexual orientation or gender identity.
The bill states specifically that bullying and harassing behavior includes “acts reasonably perceived as being motivated by any actual or perceived” characteristics such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, socioeconomic status, gender identity, physical appearance, sexual orientation, or disability. House Republicans argue that the inclusion of the controversial motivating factors for bullying is unnecessary, and that a bill protecting all children in the state from bullying is possible without the proposed language. State conservative analysts have assessed that including gender identity and sexual orientation as motivating characteristics in the bill would be a political victory for gay rights activists and set the stage for additional legislation including specific provisions to protect the rights of gay, lesbian, and transgendered citizens.
Conservative analysts are probably correct in their assessment that this bill’s passage would be a victory for gay rights activists in North Carolina setting the stage for activists to apply pressure in other areas. And I understand that for some, that is a threat. But the argument of Republican House lawmakers that it is possible to produce a bill that would protect all children from bullying without the inclusion of those specific motivating characteristics is questionable. Across the country, cases of bullying motivated by students’ perceived sexual orientation and/or gender identity have been ignored or minimally responded to by schools, resulting in more serious crimes committed against these young people and in all too many cases the tragic loss of life.
The language of the proposed bill says in no uncertain terms that bullying and harassing gay or perceived gay children in schools is unacceptable. Making that statement is important because for a long time our silence on the issue has sent the implicit message that it’s okay. While it still occurs, for the most part children are starting to understand that bullying or harassment based on race is unacceptable. We have been sending the message through legislation across the nation that sexual harassment will be not tolerated in our schools. Now it is time that we start to say plainly that the harassment of children because of their gender identity and sexual orientation will no longer be tolerated. Because this behavior has been ignored for so long, it is imperative that we now spell it out. Lawmakers should not allow their ideological or political stance on gay rights to stand in the way of sending the important and potentially life-saving message to children and school leaders that gay, lesbian, and transgendered children must be protected.