AUGUSTA, Maine — New data on the number of students who have been restrained or secluded in Maine schools show wide variances in the use of those techniques from school to school and indicate that some educators still aren’t clear on what constitutes restraint or seclusion.

The total number of uses of restraint and seclusion reported by public schools and other agencies required by law to file their totals with the Department of Education varied from zero at numerous schools to hundreds. Sixty-five of the more than 190 school districts required to report their data failed to do so.

The Department of Education warned that the data do little other than establish a partial baseline for future analysis because it is the first time restraint and seclusion incidents in Maine has been quantified.

The data showed that about 800 students were restrained under the definition in the law during the 2012-2013 school year in a total of 3,752 incidents. A small percentage of students were involved in multiple repeat incidents, as reflected by the fact that 245 students were put in seclusion because of more than 1,400 behavior outbursts.

Several institutions that serve special-needs students also reported their use of restraint and seclusion. Their numbers were generally higher.

There were a total of 185,738 students enrolled in Maine schools during the last school year.

The restraint and seclusion of students having extreme behavior outbursts has been a major focus of the Legislature, Department of Education and education associations for at least two years. The issue was first addressed by a stakeholders group, whose work resulted in the passage of wide-ranging adjustments to Chapter 33 of the Department of Education’s rules in early 2012.

In essence, the new regulations included clearer definitions of restraint and seclusion in cases of extreme behavior by students, required teachers to be trained and laid out an extensive documentation and review process.

As public schools reconvened in September 2012, there was widespread outcry about the new rules, with some educators contending that they were afraid to touch a student at all for fear of violating the new rules. Led by Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, the Legislature amended the rules to differentiate between “physical escort” and “restraint” and gave teachers clearer guidelines under which to break up a fight.

The numbers released Thursday by the Department of Education represented the first time the use of restraint and seclusion has been measured in Maine schools, though both the DOE and Rob Walker, executive director of the Maine Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, acknowledged that the numbers are of little value. For one thing, there are no prior data to compare them to. For another, they reflect reporting that happened both before and after the revamp of the rules earlier this year.

“The numbers don’t say enough because they really don’t talk about how many restraints and seclusions there were before,” said Walker. “Anecdotally, talking to superintendents, some of the higher numbers were a result of their being cautious in trying to comply with the older rules. They were recording a lot of things as restraints when they really weren’t.”

Walker said many superintendents have sought legal advice about how to interpret the rules.

“I think the legal advice to school departments was that they had to be overly cautious and over-report,” said Walker.

Samantha Warren, the Department of Education’s spokeswoman, said the data collection system is a work in progress and that the department is hopeful that more schools will comply in the future.

“There are significant differences in the data and while we suspect that’s a result of a range of factors — from variations in reporting, student populations and behavior management practices — because the department only receives the numbers in aggregate form, we can’t say why with any productive certainty,” wrote Warren in response to emailed questions.

Aside from the data reporting, the new rules require educators to be trained in the use of restraint and seclusion. They also set up a process for parents to go to the Department of Education to challenge the use of these techniques on their children.

“In the 15 months that’s been in place, we haven’t received a single complaint … which shows us the local process is being taken seriously and as a result, effectively serving students and families,” wrote Warren.

Walker agreed and said despite the long process it took to develop the new rules, they are a major improvement.

“I think they’re better all the way around,” he said. “The department has taken a more reasoned approach.”

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.