The ‘grey areas’ of restrictive practice for students with a disability in Tasmanian schools

Educate: Restrictive practices in schools need greater transparency, advocates say.
Educate: Restrictive practices in schools need greater transparency, advocates say.

Does restrictive practice have a place in schools?

Restrictive practice is defined as the use of physical restraint and/or segregation to manage or control behaviour in people with a disability.

Disability education advocates are concerned about the regulation and transparency of its use in Tasmanian schools.

Tasmania’s Education Department does not have a public policy on the use of restrictive practice available on its website or on request, however a spokesperson said the department has ‘clear legal guidelines’ incorporated in education policy.

The state’s health department does have a restrictive practices policy, available online.

Tasmanian Disability Education Reform Lobby founder Kristen Desmond said there was no mention of restrictive practice policy in the Education Act 2016, and the Disability Services Act 2011 did not explicitly mention schools.

“Parents should at the very least understand what the Education Department considers acceptable in relation to physical restraint and seclusion of students in Tasmanian schools,” she said.

“We know that physical restraint and seclusion of students with disability does occur in Tasmanian schools and TDERL is extremely concerned that there are no publicly facing documents that set out the guidelines that schools have been given in relation to these practices.”

An Education Department spokesman said “employees must not engage in conduct that could physically harm a student”.

“The Education Department has clear legal guidelines in place around physical restraint, outlining what constitutes physical restraint in order to protect students and staff,” the spokesman said.

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A report published in October 2017 surveyed 46 Tasmanian parents and teachers of students with a disability, and found more than 70 per cent of respondents had experienced the use of restrictive practices in Tasmanian schools.

However University of Tasmania inclusive education lecturer Dr Chris Rayner said the report had “a different idea of what restrictive practices were” compared to the Tasmanian health department’s policy.

He said the use of restrictive practice sits in a necessarily grey area, with the highly complex needs of individual students not always best managed by rigorous legal definitions, although there were practices that were “clearly illegal”.

“The complaint is often that it’s too grey, it’s too abstract, and that is a fair criticism,” Dr Rayner said.

“But at the same time it’s meant to be grey so that’s what actually contextually appropriate can be worked out in negotiations between parents, cares and educators, and between the the student or child itself.

“That level of greyness if you like in the disability standards perhaps in the interpretation of ‘what is a restrictive practice’, I think is important.

“In one context for one person, what might be considered restrictive and unnecessary, and against the wellbeing of one person … might in another context be quite justifiable and quite good for that person.” 

The complaint is often that it’s too grey, it’s too abstract, and that is a fair criticism.

Dr Chris Rayner

Dr Rayner suggested a better term for restrictive practice was ‘reasonable adjustment’, with teachers, parents and carers able to discuss what was a reasonable adjustment to manage behaviour or learning challenges for students with a disability.

Reasonable adjustment versus unreasonable presented a better picture of how teachers and professionals can navigate the grey areas, Dr Rayner said.

The Australian Law Reform Commission released a discussion paper in May 2014 that noted ‘significant concerns’ had been raised about the use of restrictive practices in Australia, with regulation primarily at a state level creating a patchwork of requirements.

Ms Desmond said the lobby was concerned training was provided to mainstream Tasmanian state schools around the use of physical restraint practices, and that incidents of restrictive practice were not being reported publicly or to the parents of children involved.

She said the use of restrictive practice could traumatise and discourage children from attending school, corrupting the focus of inclusive education.

“Schools are provided with formal training as deemed necessary, including training in positive handling and risk-reduction, with a support team providing additional access to training where this is considered appropriate,” the Education Department spokesman said.