AUGUSTA, Maine — New rules governing the restraint of students in public schools have gone too far and need to be changed less than a year after they were instituted, according to educators who gathered Wednesday at the State House.

Chapter 33 of the Maine Department of Education’s rules has been a focus of lawmakers and the department since at least 2010 after complaints from parents about their children being physically restrained and, in some cases, secluded in “safe rooms.” The Legislature formed a stakeholder’s group instead of enacting a bill that was proposed at the time. The recommendations were put into law in March of 2012, but began to attract widespread criticism as soon as the current school year began last fall.

The Department of Education told the Bangor Daily News in November 2012 that because of timing and the fact that the department had already gone through a rulemaking process, if there are to be more changes to Chapter 33, they will have to be made by the Legislature. Despite that, Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, has proposed a resolve directing the Department of Education to amend its rules.

“Teachers want to teach,” said Saviello during a press conference Wednesday morning. “The way Chapter 33 was written, it took that ability out of their hands. Chapter 33 is well intended but it needs to be clarified. It needs to be modified to allow our teachers to teach again.”

Specifically, Saviello has asked the department to make adjustments to its definition of “physical escort” so that a teacher can place hands on a student “for the purpose of inducing that student to walk to a safe location.” Some teachers have interpreted the new Chapter 33 rules to mean that they cannot touch a student unless his or her behavior poses an imminent physical threat to the student or others.

“A lot of classroom teachers have been told by administrators that they may not put their hands on children,” said Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, who also spoke at the press conference. “The word ‘imminent’ is the problem. What you consider an imminent risk might not be what I think imminent is.”

Saviello also asks that the term “physical restraint” in the rule be more precisely defined and that it be made clear that physical restraint or seclusion are appropriate responses to a student who is destroying property or “disrupting the educational environment.”

Jill Watson, who in addition to being a special education teacher in Readfield-area RSU 38 is the district’s safety coordinator, said not being able to react physically to a student who is acting out, in addition to disrupting classrooms, also sends a message to other students that bad behavior reaps few consequences.

“Several students have learned that these rules give them power and some are playing to that, making it that the adult in the environment has no control,” said Watson. “Our classrooms are supposed to be safe learning environments. The rules just don’t work in the real-life classroom. I don’t believe these rules are doing what they’re intended to do.”

But not everyone supports more changes to Chapter 33, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, which in a press release said Saviello’s proposal “seems to be grounded in misinterpretation of the existing guidelines for student restraints.”

Shenna Bellows, the group’s executive director, said emergency legislation is no way to change the rule.

“Rule 33 was crafted as part of a thoughtful yearlong process involving key stakeholders, educators and the Department of Education and it should not be gutted by legislators in a matter of days,” said Bellows. “We should focus on educating people about what this rule actually says and does, not undermine it with emergency legislation that disregards the entire process.”

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.