Seclusion Room DOJ

One of three seclusion rooms are shown at the new Rock Creek School in Walkersville. The rooms are no longer in use.

A bill that would ban seclusion in public schools across Maryland is set for a hearing in the House of Delegates after passing comfortably through the Senate.

Senate Bill 705 would ban the involuntary confinement of a student, typically in a small space. It would also place strict limits on when nonpublic schools can use seclusion and require state employees to more closely monitor individual counties’ and schools’ use of physical restraint.

The bill passed its third reading by a 46-1 vote earlier this month, meaning it is up for House consideration. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday at 1 p.m. in the House Ways and Means committee.

“I’m feeling optimistic. Cautiously optimistic,” said Leslie Margolis, an attorney for the nonprofit Disability Rights Maryland, who has been advocating for the legislation. “I’ll feel a lot better after Thursday.”

Margolis and other advocates have pushed similar bills in the last two legislative sessions, but both died in committee. She said she had “no doubt” that a Department of Justice investigation into Frederick County Public Schools contributed to the traction it gained this year.

In December, the DOJ announced a settlement with FCPS over the district’s misuse of seclusion and restraint against students with disabilities. It found FCPS violated the Americans with Disabilities Act in its use of these methods, which experts say can traumatize already-vulnerable children.

FCPS used seclusion or restraint more than 7,200 times on 125 students within two and a half years. Staff regularly turned to these methods in non-emergency situations, which is a violation of the state laws governing their use, according to DOJ.

Parents of special education students who spoke to the News-Post said seclusion and restraint had caused physical and emotional injuries to their children.

Though Margolis and her colleagues had been pushing for action on the issue of seclusion for years, she said the DOJ investigation and the scrutiny it prompted may have been a tipping point.

“Sometimes it takes an outside report to really make that point hit home,” Margolis said.

Lawmakers filed a bill identical to S.B. 705 in the house at the start of this year’s legislative session. Delegates voted unanimously last week to send that bill to the opposite chamber, but a Senate hearing hasn’t been scheduled yet.

Current state education law says seclusion and restraint may only be used when necessary to prevent “imminent serious physical harm.” Sen. Robert Cassilly, D-Harford County, tried to amend that threshold in S.B. 705, arguing that “physical harm” alone was a sufficient standard.

The “imminent serious physical harm” model is used in laws and policies governing seclusion and restraint across the country, and it’s outlined in federal guidance on the practices. The DOJ found FCPS consistently flouted this standard, and several parents told the News-Post their children were restrained or secluded for behaviors that were disruptive but not dangerous.

Advocates argue seclusion and restraint should be reserved for situations approaching a life-or-death level of danger. Neither breaking up a fight nor escorting a student by holding their hand or arm qualify as restraint, meaning these actions aren’t subject to the “imminent serious physical harm” standard.

“When you lose the word ‘serious,’ it completely changes the meaning,” said Guy Stephens, a Calvert County parent and founder of the nonprofit Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint. “Harm can be anything. It can be a scratch. It can be a bruise. It can be something very minor.”

Still, Cassilly said teachers should be able to intervene physically as soon as they have a “reasonable suspicion” that a student is about to harm another student — regardless of whether that harm could be classified as “serious.” He called the current standards “grossly unacceptable” on the Senate floor March 17.

Cassilly’s amendment failed 13-31. He later became the only senator to vote against advancing the bill.

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