Oregon lawmakers easily passed Senate Bill 963 on Wednesday, intended to clarify what teachers can and can’t do when it comes to restraining students.  

Oregon law already prohibits restraints, except when there’s an imminent threat of harm. Some teachers have argued that the legal lines aren’t always clear, and they worry that they’re limited in how to handle physical outbursts in class.

Some parents have argued restraints are sometimes overused, and applied in situations that aren’t dangerous.

In an attempt to clarify that further, legislators have redefined certain kinds of physical intervention.

If teachers grab a kid when they’re breaking up a fight, it’s not a restraint under the bill. The same is true if school staff hold a student who’s about to run into traffic, or if they block a student in self-defense.  

By redefining those holds, school staff avoid documentation and notification steps that restraints require. When school staff “restrain” a student, or put them in seclusion, they’re required to give verbal notice to parents by the end of the school day the incident occurred.

Written notification is required within 24 hours, including information about what happened, where it took place and the training of the involved staffers. Oregon law also mandates “timely notification of a debriefing meeting” to discuss the incident with the student’s parent or guardian.  

The Oregon Education Association supports the change. The statewide teachers union said the current law leaves teachers “susceptible to discipline,” if they restrain children.

OPB reported earlier this year on the experience of parents in Oregon and southwest Washington whose children faced restraint in situations that didn’t seem obviously dangerous.

In the view of at least one of those parents, SB 963 is a bad law.

“It’s going to make things worse. It’s going to give more protection to teachers that they already have,” said Nikki Putman, the mother of a 12-year-old girl on the autism spectrum.

Putman removed her daughter from the Hillsboro School District after she was restrained and apparently isolated in a classroom for having a meltdown. She has also filed complaints with the district and had her daughter’s former teacher respond by filing a “cease-and-desist” order.

Putman contends the new bill runs counter to what she sees as Oregon’s previous goal: to inform and engage parents of children with disabilities when they’re having conflicts at school.

“I totally agree if there’s a fight, that they need to break up the fight,” Putman said. But she said physical interventions can get out of hand and should be explained to parents.

“It should be documented if the child is trying to get out of the school as a runner, they should let the parents know, so they can take precautions,” Putman argued.

Jennifer, 12, swings from a tree in the backyard of her family's home in Hillsboro, Ore., Friday, March 1, 2019.

Jennifer, 12, swings from a tree in the backyard of her family’s home in Hillsboro, Ore., Friday, March 1, 2019.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

In an interview with OPB before the bill was final, Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, said SB 963 was intended to simultaneously clarify what teachers were allowed to do and what was prohibited. Gelser mentioned the need to reassure teachers they could keep kids from harming themselves or others.

“Of course you can respond when those things happen — everybody deserves to be safe,” Gelser said.

The legislation also outlaws certain kinds of holds, such as grabbing a child’s neck or sensitive areas, and any restraint intended to inflict pain. Gelser gave an example of an incident she heard from a family who discovered fingerprints on their daughter’s neck.

“It is never appropriate to hold a 6-year-old by the neck, and we need to make sure that in giving our staff clarity about the commonsense things that are appropriate,” she said. “We need children and families to have tools to say what is absolutely not permissible under the law.”

SB 963 passed the Oregon House 58-1, and passed the Senate 26-4. It’s now headed to Gov. Kate Brown.