In this Aug. 31, 2021, file photo, backpacks line a hallway in Hampden's Weatherbee School on the first day of school. Credit: Lia Russell / BDN

SACO — Maine teachers and staff restrain and isolate students at a rate higher than any other state.

More than 90 percent of the time, the incidents involve students with disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Carrie Woodcock’s daughter, Sami, is an eighth grader at Saco Middle School.

She said teachers there restrained her daughter once in an emergency and another time that she thinks could have been avoided.

“Sami has only been restrained two times during her educational career,” Woodcock said. “As a parent, it’s scary to think that you’re sending your child to school, and that somebody else may be laying their hands on your child.”

In three years, from 2017 to 2020, Saco students with disabilities were restrained 303 times and placed in a seclusion room 392 times, the Department of Education said.

“Nine times out of 10, they’re going to escalate even more and become completely dysregulated because they don’t have somebody there to help them come down from that,” Woodcock said.

In 2017-18, Fairfield Elementary School in Saco had by far the most cases of restraint and seclusion.

According to a report, 143 restraints and 172 seclusions occurred at Fairfield Elementary School, and all of them involved students, ages 5-7, with disabilities. The report details several witnesses who expressed concern with the frequent use of restraint and seclusion by one special education teacher who’s no longer with the district.

“Restraint and seclusion is a red flag that something’s not going well,” Ben Jones with Disability Rights Maine said. “Because they’re very dangerous and they’re not effective. They don’t address the underlying behavior.”

Jones says Fairfield turned those numbers around in the next two years.

“So they had a huge reduction over that time when they focused in and provided positive supports instead of restraints and seclusions,” Jones said.

Under an 18-page resolution, Saco is changing its policies, and other school districts in Maine will soon follow.

Under a new state law, restraint and seclusion can now only be used in an emergency.