Wisconsin statehouse

Wisconsin lawmakers are taking the first steps to implement new rules for when schools can temporarily isolate students or forcibly hold them down until they calm down. 

A state Senate panel held a public hearing Tuesday on SB 527, which would change the rules for student restraint and student isolation. 

Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, says the idea is to update the rules for what schools can and cannot do to students. 

"I'm hoping that as time has gone on, people have learned how to handle these situations," Olsen told the hearing in Madison. 

But advocates and parents say many local schools have never learned how to properly deal with disruptive and sometimes out-of-control students. 

Nicki Vander Meulen told lawmakers about her experience as both a special needs student in Wisconsin public schools and an advocate for other autistic and special needs kids. 

"[This plan] has some very specific rules that are incredibly important to strengthen our laws," she said. "We would require that in seclusion rooms, the door can't be locked. This is common sense. We're not holding a child prisoner. We're trying to help them calm down. How can you help someone to calm down when they are locked in a cage?"

Vander Meulen said the proposal also would stop teachers and school staff from forcibly calming students down by holding them against the ground. 

"The legislation would ban prone restraints. Lying on someone's back, pushing them into the ground is not any way to calm an individual," Vander Meulen said. "It can only cause physical harm."

Most of Wisconsin's advocates for the disabled and for disabled students support the proposal. Many of the state's biggest education groups, including the Wisconsin Association of School Administrators, are neither outright supporting or opposing the plan. 

Parents said despite the laws already on Wisconsin's books, they are afraid to raise issues about their children who are sent to exclusion rooms or pulled from class out of fear of retribution. 

Olsen said that cannot be allowed to continue. 

"When you say retaliation, that just kills me," Olsen said during the hearing. "These are our children. Why would we be mad because we get called on the carpet? You would think people would normally say, 'I'm not going to let that happen again.' Instead of 'I'm going to turn on you.'"

Advocates say Wisconsin is not alone in struggling with how to deal with children who act out, even to the point of classroom violence. 

Olsen's plan changes how schools across the state can use restraint and isolation, as well as adds several reporting requirements about them, but he is not proposing an end to isolation and restraint in public schools. 

There is a similar plan in the Assembly that has not yet been called for a hearing or a vote. 

Staff Reporter

An industry veteran with two decades of experience in media, Benjamin Yount reports on Illinois and Wisconsin statewide issues for The Center Square.