Kane In Your Corner: Bill to protect students with disabilities advances in Legislature

A bill to protect students with disabilities, inspired by a Kane In Your Corner investigation, is halfway to becoming law. But some education advocates say the proposal is too vague to offer much protection. 

In 2014, Kane In Your Corner investigated the controversial practice of schools physically restraining students with special needs. The practice is so unregulated in New Jersey that some schools routinely do it and don't inform the parents. One child had been restrained 23 times in less than two months, but his mother was never told; her severely autistic child, who was almost non-verbal, eventually managed to communicate it himself.

Sen. Kevin O'Toole (R - Wayne) was so moved by the series of reports that he immediately got to work on reform legislation. His proposal, which has unanimously passed the state Senate and is expected to pass the Assembly, would make restraint illegal unless "a student's behavior places the student or others in immediate physical danger." It also requires parents to be notified immediately each time their child is restrained, with a detailed written report to follow within 48 hours.

"We're in the dark ages right now," O'Toole says. "This advances us into the times that we're living."

But some advocates worry the legislation does not clearly define what constitutes "imminent danger," leaving children with little additional protection. "I don't know how a parent is going to prove it wasn't an emergency," says Renay Zamloot, an education advocate from Hunterdon County. She says "what's really happening is you're legalizing the abuse of students with disabilities."

O'Toole disagrees. He says that because the bill would make restraint illegal, except in emergencies, anyone who engages in the practice in a non-emergency situation would be risking an assault charge. 

Zamloot also is concerned the pending restraint legislation does not address the use of mechanical restraints, such as restraint chairs, and allows the use of seclusion rooms, a practice she and other advocates contend should be banned. She also questions why the law focuses exclusively on students with disabilities, and does not afford the same protections to all students.

O'Toole says he's "open to suggestions" to make his legislation better, but says he believes he came up with "as good a compromise as possible."

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