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Florida closer than ever to restraint and seclusion changes

‘I’m sorry it has taken so long,’ says state Sen. Anitere Flores, a longtime proponent to end the practice.

For close to a decade, some Florida lawmakers have angled to restrict if not outright end the use of restraint and seclusion against students with disabilities who become uncontrollable.

This year could be the year.

That’s because the historically reluctant state Senate has advanced legislation (SB 1644) alongside the House, which approved a similar measure a year ago only to see it falter in the upper chamber. And some key Senate leaders have signaled a desire to see the bill through to the governor’s desk.

“We need to do it in a way that protects everyone,” Senate Education Appropriations chairwoman Kelli Stargel said, acknowledging concerns about keeping teachers safe from the harm of violent children. “This language has done that. ... I hope to get it over the finish line.”

Her panel this week unanimously blessed the proposal, sending it to the full Appropriations Committee for a final review before it could hit the Senate floor. The House version (HB 1231) already is set for second reading.

Related: Florida House tries again to limit student restraint and seclusion

In the Senate, sponsor Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat, said the state has a responsibility to care for its students on their best and worst days. Yet under current law, Book observed, if a child acts out, he or she might be locked inside a room.

In some cases, they might be physically restrained in possibly painful and humiliating ways, she said.

Her bill proposes to completely prohibit the use of seclusion in schools, and to permit restraint only as a last resort to avoid the imminent harm of the child. Schools would have to train their staffs on other methods to control students, including the use of positive behavior incentives.

For self-contained special education classrooms, parents would be able to request that a camera be installed so they can monitor how their children are treated. Initially a mandate for all 67 counties, Book limited that part of the measure to a 3-year pilot program for just two counties — Broward and Volusia — to see how it works.

Groups that serve students with disabilities, such as Arc of Florida and Pepin Academies, offered their backing of the plan. One Broward County parent, who said his son with special needs had been abused in classrooms in the past, said the recommendations are necessary to protect children from the handful of school employees who don’t have the patience or self control needed.

Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican, deemed this legislation one of the most important bills she’s seen in her lengthy tenure.

“We do a lot of things while we’re here. A lot of it is just ‘stuff,’” Flores said.

But not this proposal. She’s been trying to change the rules since she served in the House — Flores is about to end her second Senate term — because she said she could not fathom children being locked alone in a room, or being physically held down by adults.

“I looked at this from the sense of a parent and thought, How is this happening?” she said. “And there are still too many kids that this is happening to every single day.”

Book said that, as a first-year lawmaker in 2016, she was inspired by Flores’ dedication to the bill and that’s why she has picked it up. She was hopeful that the latest approach to the concept would finally win in the Senate.

So too was Flores.

“I’m sorry it has taken so long,” Flores said.

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