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‘Used as a last resort’: Manitoba unveils school seclusion room guidelines

Detailed written reports, immediate notification to parents, and post-incident reviews will now be required after a student is put into seclusion at school during an outburst that escalates to put them or others at risk.

Manitoba Education has published new guidelines on proactive supports to minimize incidents of involuntary confinement where a student is left alone in a room or area at school — a practice that differs from time-outs and sensory intervention.

Seclusion is defined in the document as a “safety response” to be used only when a student is in extreme distress and their behaviour poses an immediate risk of serious physical self-harm or harm to others.

“Seclusion is used as a last resort after prevention strategies, de-escalation interventions, and less restrictive measures have been exhausted,” it states.

Per the 24-page document, all school staff must participate in training on how-to implement positive behaviour supports to avoid using the practice, which it notes has negative consequences for school staff, students, caregivers and school climates, in the first place.

If seclusion is deemed necessary, a student must be safe throughout it, ongoing monitoring and communication is required, and a staff member must take detailed notes. After the fact, a principal, parent, superintendent and divisional administrator in charge of student support services must be informed of the incident on the day it occurs.

“It’s a step in the right direction to start acknowledging that this is an issue and there is a need for some kind of regulation,” said Nadine Bartlett, an assistant professor of inclusive education at the University of Manitoba.

Provincial officials consulted Bartlett, Inclusion Winnipeg, and the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, among others, in compiling the guidelines. (There is no equivalent document on physical restraint practices in the province at present.)

The new document was published one year after Bartlett released findings of an independent study she conducted in late 2019, on experiences students with disabilities have had with physical restraint and seclusion in Manitoba schools.

Bartlett’s report, “Behind Closed Doors,” includes insights from 62 guardians who indicated their child had been restrained or placed in an isolated area for an extended period of time and prevented from leaving it on at least one occasion during the three-year period prior to completing the survey.

Respondents reported the use of holding students to the floor face-down, seclusion in cinder block-lined closets, and students being restrained to chairs and while forced to walk. In certain instances, such practices — which advocates suggest should never be used — happened on a frequent or daily basis.

As far as Bartlett is concerned, a single experience of seclusion or restraint is one too many; six recommendations for Manitoba Education were listed in her 2020 report to address and ultimately eliminate the practices.

The researcher’s calls to action: creation of provincial practice guidelines; standards for seclusion spaces; incident reporting requirements; use of practices only in crises; prescription of a standardized training program; and a review of the provincewide practice, once implemented.

While she applauded Thursday the new detailed requirements around incident reporting, she noted the few details on restraint practices. The guidelines also do not call for a provincial reporting mechanism or environmental scan of spaces in schools used for seclusion.

In Alberta, rooms used for seclusion are required to abide by all building, safety and fire codes, be free of harmful items, and be adequately lit, well-ventilated, and at a suitable temperature.

In a prepared statement Thursday, Manitoba Education Minister Cliff Cullen said the procedures in the new document are aimed at keeping students safe by focusing on the “proactive use of appropriate programming and problem solving.”

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Cullen added: “We know our classroom teachers do an outstanding job every day in dealing with a variety of situations in the classroom, and this will provide another tool to minimize the need for and use of seclusion.”
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