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Restraint & Seclusion in Schools

Written by Dr. Brittany Whitley and Dr. Jill Barnas
Published on February 9, 2021
Research Highlights

The United States Department of Education recommends that seclusion and restraint are used rarely and only during crisis/emergency situations.


  • Inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint is associated with negative physical andmental health consequences, including serious injury and death in some cases.
  • Seclusion and restraint are disproportionately applied to students with disabilities servedunder the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and students of color.
  • Positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS), which include preventative behavioral support plans and appropriate de-escalation training for personnel, can address the behavioral events usually leading to seclusion and restraint.
  • Missouri does not have statutory restrictions on the use of seclusion and restraint in schools. The Missouri Department of Elementary & Secondary Education (DESE) currently provides nonbinding guidance that can be adopted and modified to create a policy per each individual school district

Executive Summary

There is no federal or Missouri law explicitly regulating the use of seclusion and/or restraint as a behavioral intervention in schools. The United States Department of Education recommends that seclusion and restraint are used rarely and only during crisis/emergency situations. The inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint is associated with negative health and behavioral outcomes and disproportionately impacts students with disabilities and students of color. HB 387 would prohibit all publicly funded schools from using restraint and seclusion for any purpose other than situations or conditions of imminent danger or physical harm. It also establishes reporting requirements for instances when seclusion or restraint is used.

  • Instances of seclusion and restraint are likely underreported by schools/districts. The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) also notes that quality control within federal data sets is limited, which may also impact national statistics.

Research Background

Use of seclusion & restraint in schools

Seclusion and restraint are used as a behavioral intervention within some schools. The Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) defines seclusion as the “involuntary confinement of a student alone in a room or area from which the student is physically prevented from leaving,” not including time outs. Physical restraint refers to action that “immobilizes or reduces the ability of a student to move his or her torso, arms, legs, or head freely,” while mechanical restraint utilizes a device or equipment to restrict a student’s freedom of movement, excluding medical assistance tools and seatbelts.1 Based on CRDC data, in the 2015-2016 school year in Missouri, schools physically restrained 1,990 children, secluded 554 children, and mechanically restrained 116 children.2 The US Department of Education recommends that seclusion and restraint are only used in emergency situations to prevent imminent and serious physical harm to the student or others.3 However, there are several examples of seclusion and restraint interventions being inappropriately used in states across the country.4-7 Recently, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) highlighted several shortcomings with federal seclusion and restraint data sets, including underreporting and incorrect reporting.8

Disparities by disability and race. Seclusion and restraint tend to be disproportionately used on students with disabilities.9 As of the 2015-16 school year, 81.4% of all seclusion interventions in Missouri’s public schools impacted students with disabilities under IDEA.2 Similarly, 59.1% of physical restraint and 25% of mechanical restraint interventions affected students with disabilities. Students of color, regardless of disability status, also are more likely to receive seclusion and restraint interventions compared to their white peers.2

Mental and physical health impacts. Seclusion and restraint interventions can risk the physical safety and mental well-being for both teachers and students. In 2009, testimony to the US Congress highlighted several examples of injuries and death that resulted from seclusion/restraint practices.5 Similar testimonies with additional examples were provided in subsequent years.6,7 Frequent reports refer to the mental health impacts on students, including exacerbating inappropriate behaviors and associating fear, pain, anger and trauma with physical restraint.10,11

Alternative behavioral interventions. There is little evidence that seclusion and restraint improve behavior; rather, in some cases these techniques can make behavior worse.10 In 2018, the US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE) granted $32 million to continue funding for the Technical Assistance (TA) Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). PBIS policies include ongoing professional development for de-escalation training, social-emotional support and self-regulation training for students, and prevention-based adjustments to school environments.12 Students with special needs may also receive individualized planning and support that is meant to reduce the need for behavioral interventions and improve the student’s quality of life.13 Clear guidance and improved reporting in school settings will be central to improving knowledge about best practices for effective and safe behavioral interventions.

School seclusion & restraint policies in the United States

Missouri has defined laws for seclusion and restraint of school-age children in mental health facilities (RSMo 630.175), but not within schools. Missouri is one of three states (also NE and SD) with the fewest statutory restrictions on seclusion and restraint in schools.14 Currently, RSMo 160.263 provides general, nonbinding guidelines (or suggestions) for treatment of restraint and seclusion. DESE provides a model for developing guidance that can be adopted and modified to create a policy per each individual school district. These nonbinding guidelines recommend seclusion be allowed for threats of physical harm, destruction of property, for reasons stated in the IEP, Section 504 plan, or behavior intervention plan. Under current law, solitary locked seclusion is only banned unless awaiting law enforcement, but this does not necessarily include seclusion where the exit may be blocked.

Many states have adopted policies similar to those proposed in the failed Keeping All Students Safe Act of 2009, which prohibited the use of physical restraint and seclusion, except in emergencies, and required written and verbal notification to parents or guardians.15 Protection laws against seclusion and restraint may not apply to all children and vary between states; nonbinding guidelines permit different policies between school districts and lead to greater variability within states than across states.16 As of July 2019, 30 states have laws providing protections against restraint and seclusion for all children; 39 states have protections for children with disabilities. Ten out of 13 Midwestern states have protection laws against seclusion and restraint (Table 1).14



  1. U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. Civil Rights Data Collection, 2017-18 Data Definitions. Retrieved from https://ocrdata.ed.gov/resources/datadefinitions.
  2. U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. Civil Rights Data Collection, 2015-16 Restraint and Seclusion Estimations. Retrieved from https://ocrdata.ed.gov/estimations/2015-2016.
  3. U.S. Department of Education. (2012). Restraint and Seclusion: Resource Document. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/policy/seclusion/restraints-and-seclusion-resources.pdf.
  4. Scheuermann, B., Peterson, R., Ryan, J. B., & Billingsley, G. (2016). Professional Practice and Ethical Issues Related to Physical Restraint and Seclusion in Schools. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 27(2), 86–95. https://doi.org/10.1177/1044207315604366.
  5. United States Government Accountability Office. (2009). Seclusions and Restraints: Selected Cases of Death and Abuse at Public and Private Schools and Treatment Centers, Testimony Before the Committee on Education and Labor, House of Representatives. Retrieved from https://www.gao.gov/assets/130/122526.pdf.
  6. United States Senate, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. (2014). Dangerous Use of Seclusion and Restraints in Schools Remains Widespread and Difficult to Remedy: A Review of Ten Cases, Majority Committee Staff Report. Retrieved from https://www.help.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Seclusion%20and%20Restraints%20Final%20Report. pdf.
  7. United States House of Representatives, Committee on Education and Labor. (2019). Classrooms in Crisis: Examining the Inappropriate Use of Seclusion and Restraint Practices, Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Elementary & Secondary Education. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED601931.pdf.
  8. United States Government Accountability Office. (2020). Education Needs to Address Significant Quality Issues with its Restraint and Seclusion Data, Report to Congressional Committees. Retrieved from https://www.gao.gov/assets/710/706269.pdf.
  9. U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. 2017-18 Civil Rights Data Collection: The Use of Restraint and Seclusion on Children with Disabilities in K-12 Schools. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/restraint-and-seclusion.pdf.
  10. Verret, C., Massé, L., Lagacé-Leblanc, J., Delisle, G., & Doyon, J. (2019). The impact of a schoolwide de- escalation intervention plan on the use of seclusion and restraint in a special education school. Emotional & Behavioural Difficulties, 24(4), 357–373. https://doi.org/10.1080/13632752.2019.1628375
  11. LeBel, J., Nunno, M. A., Mohr, W. K., & O'Halloran, R. (2012). Restraint and seclusion use in U.S. School settings: Recommendations from allied treatment disciplines. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 82(1), 75–86. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1939-0025.2011.01134.x
  12. Simonsen, B., Sugai, G., George, H.P., Freeman, J., & Evanovich, L. (2019). Preventing Restraint and Seclusion in Schools. OSEP Technical Assistance Center PBIS. Retrieved from https://www.pbis.org/resource/preventing-restraint-and-seclusion-in-schools.
  13. Trader, B., Stonemeier, J., Berg, T., Knowles, C., Massar, M., Monzalve, M., Pinkelman, S., Nese, R., Ruppert, T., & Horner, R. (2017). Promoting Inclusion Through Evidence-Based Alternatives to Restraint and Seclusion. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 42(2), 75–88. https://doi.org/10.1177/1540796917698830.
  14. Butler, J. (2019). How Safe is the Schoolhouse: An Analysis of State Seclusion and Restraint Laws and Policies. Autism National Committee. Retrieved
    from https://www.autcom.org/pdf/HowSafeSchoolhouse.pdf
  15. Keeping All Kids Safe Act of 2009. 111 U.S.C. Retreived from https://www.congress.gov/bill/111th- congress/house-bill/4247
  16. Gagnon, D., Mattingly, M., & Connelly, V. J. (2014). Restraint and Seclusion of Students with a Disability Continue to Be Common in Some School Districts. Patterns Remain Relatively Consistent Despite Recent Policy Changes. National Issue Brief Number 78. Carsey School of Public Policy. Retrieved from https://scholars.unh.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1223&context=carsey.
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