A Win for Students with Disabilities in Public Schools

Florida public schools have historically used seclusion and physical restraint to discipline children with disabilities, despite the US Department of Health stating there’s no evidence that using these practices is effective in reducing the occurrence of problem behaviors in students with disabilities.

After a decade of efforts to end this practice, with tireless work of advocates including American Children’s Campaign, the Florida Legislature passed legislation in 2021 that prohibits the use of seclusion in public schools and limits physical restraints to emergencies involving the safety of the student or others. The bill also places crisis intervention plans into statute and mandates they be developed after the second time a child is restrained within a semester.

The new legislation will provide the state with additional information about the number of restraints and the training of the staff involved in each incident of restraint, as well as pilot the placement of video cameras in certain classrooms, and require schools to adopt policies and procedures related to positive behavior interventions. This additional information will help clear up the conflicting restraint numbers reported to the state in recent years and provide clearer information on next steps to keep children with disabilities safe in school.

During the 2018-2019 school year, there were 744 incidents of seclusion and 8,650 incidents of restraint in Florida public schools. Florida currently averages over 8,500 physical restraints in public schools annually. The majority of restraints were on young children (Pre-K – 3rd grade).

The practice of allowing restraints on children with disabilities should ONLY be permissible if and when children present as a danger to themselves or others and NOT as behavior modification or punishment.

Black Students with Disabilities are Especially Vulnerable to Disciplinary Practices

Black students in the South are 45% less likely to receive special education services compared to White students with similar family incomes, academic achievement, and school characteristics. In Florida’s public schools, Black students with disabilities are more likely to be placed in a separate classroom than their peers. They are two times more likely to be disciplined and lead their peers in the rate of in- and out of school suspensions. Black students with disabilities are also two times as likely to be expelled from school.

Children’s Medical Service Network Issues Must Be Addressed

The state is transitioning the administration of Children’s Medical Services (CMS), the state’s collection of programs for children with the most severe medical issues, to a privately run managed care plan starting January 2019. The privatization of the program comes after more than 13,000 special needs children were “transitioned” out of the Children’s Medical Service Network (CMS Network) into Medicaid managed care that was alleged to be “less expensive” for the state. Ultimately, the traditional program was changed to what was known as the CMS managed medical network and legislators were required to allocate an additional $5-million to cover the higher than anticipated health-care costs for children in the program.
The change is supposed to provide the same core benefits, as well as providing families other services such as respite care, financial planning, and parent coaching – but questions remain. Advocates disagree that the level of services remain the same in the managed care system as the traditional CMS, and see issues with physicians willing to accept the reimbursement rate and continuing to provide care.

Early Steps Must Return to Original Intent of Helping “At Risk” Children

Early intervention is crucial for children with developmental concerns. A child’s first three years are the most important time for brain development. Prior to funding cuts, Florida’s Early Steps program served children at-risk of developmental delays by providing necessary services when they would make the largest impact. Today, the program has been weakened and primarily serves children with “significant delays or an established medical condition that will likely result in a delay.”

Support

  • Utilize new data on restraints in public schools to keep children with disabilities safe. Data on training and intervention strategies will help identify areas for improvement. Encourage requiring additional data elements to provide an accurate picture of any racial, age or disability type disparity among those being restrained.
  • Ensure that the privatization of Children’s Medical Services does not lead to unintended consequences: Children with the most severe medical issues should not struggle with how to become eligible to receive the care, immediate intervention and assistance they need. Reimbursement rates need to be sufficient to keep the physicians these children rely on willing to participate in the program.
  • Support Early Steps: Early intervention is key to reaching children at-risk for developmental delays. Refer young dependent children to early steps. Requiring DCF to conduct an early needs assessment and to refer vulnerable young children (ages 0-3) who have contact with the child welfare system to the Early Steps program will provide children with critical early intervention services.

Legislation

American Children’s Campaign Priority Bill Highlights

What American Children’s Campaign is Saying

Additional Resources

Disclaimer: These links to third-party websites are provided as a convenience and for informational purposes only. They do not constitute an endorsement or approval by American Children’s Campaign or its affiliate organizations and partners.