AUGUSTA, Maine — Four education associations in Maine have asked state government to renew its focus on rule changes regarding the restraint and seclusion of students, claiming new rules have resulted in numerous injuries to teachers already this school year.

In one case, an educational technician was scratched, bitten and thrown against a wall, according to a press release Monday from the Maine Education Association. The ed tech reportedly did not touch the child, but rather suffered the injury for fear of breaking new restraint rules put in place this year.

Lois Kilby-Chesley, a teacher and president of the Maine Education Association, said this incident was one of “dozens being reported in schools around the state.” She said her organization has asked in writing for the Department of Education to step in, specifically to better define when restraint is acceptable and when it isn’t.

The new rules were developed by a stakeholders’ group through a little-used process called consensus-base rulemaking after complaints from parents about their children being physically restrained, and, in some cases, secluded in “safe rooms.” The Legislature, which in 2010 declined to act on the issue in favor of forming the stakeholders’ group, adopted the rules in March.

In addition to offering clearer definitions of restraint and seclusion in cases of extreme behavior by students, the new guidelines in Chapter 33 of the Department of Education’s rules require teachers to be trained and lay out an extensive documentation and review process. The new rules also say an educator cannot physically restrain a child except when he or she poses an imminent physical threat to himself or others.

Kilby-Chesley said there have been approximately 20 incidents this school year of physical altercations between students and educators — including a case in the Bangor area where a teacher was bitten, bruised and hit — but she couldn’t provide details because of student confidentiality laws.

Along with the MEA’s Nov. 12 letter to Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, other organizations that have asked the Department of Education to review the issue in the past few weeks include the Maine School Superintendents Association, the Maine Principals Association and the Maine School Boards Association. All four organizations asked the department to voluntarily reopen its deliberations on the restraint rules.

David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Department of Education, said Monday that due to tight time constraints around departmental rule changes, and the fact that the department already has overseen a lengthy consensus-based rulemaking process on the issue, the education organizations might be best served by pursuing the changes through the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

“We’re not prepared to simply reopen the process in the way that they have suggested,” said Connerty-Marin of the education associations’ requests. “We don’t know what the solution is any more than the other groups do. We went through a considerable process that involved all of the stakeholders. On the other hand, we are aware that there are issues.”

Judy Coombs of Waterville, who retired last year after 35 years of teaching in the elementary grades, knows what it’s like to experience violence at the hands of a student. In the 1980s, she was on recess duty when she noticed a fourth-grader in line to play tetherball. Because of previous violent outbursts by the student during tetherball, the school’s principal had barred him from the game.

“I went over and reminded him that he wasn’t allowed to play tetherball because he couldn’t handle it, but he refused to leave the line,” said Coombs. “I sent someone inside to get another adult, but no adult was able to come. I knew that once he started to play that anything could happen. He was a very volatile student.”

Coombs said she thought she had a good rapport with the student and said in an effort to avoid a bad situation, she wrapped her arm around his waist and began to lead him into the school. Halfway up a set of stairs he began to punch and kick her. Eventually Coombs was able to wrestle the student down, but feared he would knock them both down a flight of stairs. He continued to punch her in the temples and kick her legs until another adult arrived and they were able to subdue him.

“The worst part of it was [that] it was just so emotionally devastating that I had to deal with that child physically,” she said. “[With the new rules in place as of this school year], I would have had to have waited until he was actually playing the game and starting to escalate before I could have taken him inside. The new rules take away a teacher’s judgment of knowing the kids and knowing there are times when you have to use your best judgment call. There are those kids that you know well enough to know that if they’re having a bad day, you don’t put them in the line with the other kids.”

Kilby-Chesley said one problem is that the new guidelines are not clear about what constitutes an emergency or imminent physical danger. School districts are required to provide training about the new rules, but the MEA says the training that has occurred thus far in several districts is insufficient.

“A two-hour PowerPoint presentation is not enough training to deal with the intricacies of the rule,” said Kilby-Chesley. “I have heard from educators across the state [who are] fearful if they do so much as touch a child’s arm to prevent [him or her] from throwing a book, they will lose their jobs. I can’t imagine this is what the rule is intended to do.”

Connerty-Marin said Commissioner Bowen is open to discussing the issue with the groups who have raised concerns, but that the best forum for the debate is likely the Legislature’s public hearing and deliberation process.

“We actually think that is the wiser choice,” said Connerty-Marin. “The new rules have certainly tipped the balance more against restraint. However, it’s still not illegal for a teacher to restrain a student in a school situation and there seems to have been some very stringent interpretations about what the new rules require.”

The new Chapter 33 rules require stringent reporting of incidents, but Connerty-Marin said none have been received so far at the state level because that level of reporting is required only once a year.

“It’s appalling what is going on right now,” said Kilby-Chesley. “The new rule says there must be imminent danger before someone can step in, but define imminent danger. It means that a child throwing a desk is not in imminent danger. The interpretation has changed. No educator would ever want to put hands on a kid unless they felt like it had to happen.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.