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Miss district agrees to stop handcuffing students

Friday - 5/25/2012, 7:00pm  ET

By JEFF AMY
Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Jackson public schools will no longer handcuff students to poles or other objects and will train staff at its alternative school on better methods of discipline.

Mississippi's second-largest school district agreed Friday to the settlement with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which had sued over the practice of shackling students to a pole at the district's Capital City Alternative School.

The suit was filed in June 2011 by Jeanette Murry on behalf of her then-16-year-old son, who has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It said staffers routinely restrained students for hours for offenses as minor as dress code violations, forcing them to eat lunch while chained to a stair railing and to shout for help when they needed to go to the bathroom.

The settlement, approved by U.S. District Judge Tom Lee, says all district employees will stop handcuffing students younger than 13, and can only handcuff older students for crimes. In no case will employees shackle a student to a fixed object such as a railing, a pole, a desk or a chair.

"It's apparent there were severe problems that we hope now are being addressed and will be alleviated," Lee told lawyers in court Friday, just before signing the settlement order.

Troubles at the alternative school helped spark the proceedings that have jeopardized the accreditation of the entire 30,000-student district.

Nationwide, a report from the U.S. Department of Education showed tens of thousands of students, 70 percent of them disabled, were strapped down or physically restrained in school in 2009-10. Advocates for disabled students say restraints are often abused, causing injury and sometimes death.

Currently there are no federal standards, although legislation is pending in Congress. The U.S. Department of Education says Mississippi is one of 13 states with no statewide rules governing restraints.

The law center's Vanessa Carroll said after Friday's hearing that she hoped the settlement would improve a "profoundly dysfunctional school culture."

"We hope with this settlement agreement, the district and school will both take a more positive approach to student discipline," she said.

Carroll said the executive director of Mississippi Families as Allies for Children's Mental Health will serve as a district-paid monitor as part of the settlement. Joy Hogge will check compliance in quarterly reports for two years. Under the settlement, the district also agreed to record every time handcuffs or other restraints are used.

Jackson schools' chief lawyer JoAnne Shepherd told Lee that the district has told employees at the alternative school to stop using restraints.

"We're looking forward to improving that environment," she said. "We think the agreement will help us."

The law center agreed to pay its own legal costs. In-house lawyers defended the district. Shepherd said she didn't have an estimate of what the training and monitoring would cost.

National experts have said seclusion and restraint should only be used in emergencies when there's a threat of someone getting hurt. But people who aren't properly trained resort to restraints when students get out of control, they say.

The settlement says the district must tell the principal and vice principal at the school that they will be fired if they use fixed restraints.

The district has 60 days to implement to the settlement.

Carroll said the law center filed an administrative complaint with the state in September 2010, which helped spark the state's investigation of special education in the district.

Shepherd, rejected a connection between the lawsuit and accreditation proceedings, saying they are "totally different."

State officials recently agreed to give Jackson until November to fix special education problems. If the district doesn't satisfy the state, it's supposed to lose state accreditation.

The suit also reinforces criticism of alternative schools statewide. A 2009 report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that such schools "overemphasized punishment at the expense of remediation." That report urged that alternative schools focus instead on "intensive services delivered by a well-qualified staff in a highly structured but positive environment," so that students could return to and succeed at regular schools.

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