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Schools Struggle with Protocols for Restraining Unruly Students

As emergency interventions soar, districts rely on a largely unregulated industry

Corporal punishment is illegal in California public schools, but physically restraining unruly students is not. As incidents of restraint, seclusion and other emergency interventions have soared in recent years, schools have relied on training programs and physical restraint protocols developed by private companies that in many cases appear to have few qualifications.

Although restraint training is directed at some of the most difficult and sensitive situations that school personnel encounter, the companies operate with little oversight. Federal law imposes strict rules on the use of restraints and seclusion in federally financed hospitals and treatment centers, but the laws do not address their use in schools.

Restraint companies now work with dozens of school districts across California and elsewhere, training teachers and counselors to use controversial restraint maneuvers. Students involved in restraint situations usually have serious behavioral problems or developmental disabilities. More than half the incidents reported statewide in the 2009-10 school year occurred in the Bay Area, most of them in Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco Counties.

“We don’t know why this is happening,” said Fred Balcom, director of the California Department of Education’s special-education division.

The San Francisco Unified School District contracts with a company called Handle With Care Behavior Management System to train teachers and administrators — who then train their colleagues — on how to restrain students properly.

Bruce Chapman, the company’s founder and president, is a onetime psychiatric-hospital technician who said he had developed his “take down” restraint during a confrontation with an aggressive patient and refined it as a martial arts devotee who earned a black belt.

The Oakland Unified School District and the Mount Diablo Unified School District are among those that work with Pro-ACT, a company founded in 1975 by Paul Smith, a psychologist. The program’s methods are largely based on Smith’s graduate-level psychology work more than 30 years ago, said Kim Warma, Pro-ACT’s co-owner.

The San Mateo County Office of Education, for its part, works with the Crisis Prevention Institute to teach some staff techniques to handle problem students.

The company was founded in 1980 by AlGene Caraulia Sr., who has a background in martial arts, and Gene Wyka, who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology. They initially developed their program for psychiatric institutions, and it has changed little over the last 30 years, according to Randy Boardman, executive director of research and development at the company. It is now used by employees of group homes, prisons, elderly homes and schools.

Maggie Roberts, an associate managing attorney at Disability Rights California, a nonprofit advocacy organization for the disabled in Sacramento, said that school districts see the restraint training as a bigger need than ever because they have big class sizes and less money and are feeling overwhelmed. “I have certainly seen a number of situations where people clearly don’t know what they are doing, where they weren’t trained well enough,” Roberts said.

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