School districts across the country appear to be improperly reporting incidents of restraint and isolation involving students with disabilities. That’s the conclusion of a new report from the Government Accountability Office requested by a Northwest lawmaker.
U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera-Beutler, R-Washington, called in the federal watchdog after hearing media accounts of students being restrained and secluded without the incidents being properly tracked.
OPB recently investigated school districts in Washington and Oregon and found a pattern: School staff were physically restraining and isolating students with disabilities apart from classmates without authorities or the children’s parents learning of it. Similar reporting by public radio station WAMU found the Fairfax Public Schools — one of the nation’s largest districts — reported zero incidents of restraint and seclusion in its most recent submission.
The GAO report concluded simply that the U.S. Department of Education’s data collection “does not accurately or completely reflect all incidents of restraint and seclusion of public school students.”
GAO found that 70% of school districts reported no incidents, including nine of the nation’s 30 largest districts. Those figures, the GAO concluded, were almost assuredly wrong. Federal investigators concluded that those districts “inaccurately reported zeros when they actually had incidents or did not have the data.”
Herrera-Beutler noted that the GAO found the problems alarming enough that it sped up its timeline for releasing an analysis and pressed federal education officials to make changes before another set of data is collected.
“There are urgent recommendations in it,” Herrera-Beutler said.
GAO calls for four specific actions by federal education authorities. Those include a call to “immediately remind and clarify” for school districts when they should report zeros, rather than acknowledge that they’re missing data.
The GAO also called for the Department of Education to look into school districts that have reported zero incidents, as well as to review data reporting plans for the upcoming collection. Federal education officials accepted all of those recommendations.
However, federal authorities did not accept a fourth recommendation: go back through previous years of data to correct errors. Instead, the department agreed to “prominently disclose the potential problems” with previous collections of restraint and isolation data.
Herrera-Beutler said it’s too early to tell if federal authorities will take the GAO’s findings and move aggressively enough to satisfy her. But the southwest Washington Republican isn’t sure how hard she wants to push.
“I certainly don’t want to see undue problems for our schools and our teachers,” Herrera-Beutler said. “But I also feel like this is just one of those areas where you can’t just ‘wait and see’ and hope it works.”