Should students with behavior problems be strapped down?

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Sasha Pudelski, government affairs manager at the school administrators association, said except in rare cases, school workers use seclusion and restraint safely and only when necessary.

She said a federal law change isn't appropriate because the issue should be addressed at the local and state level, which is happening.

"We would never defend the heinous practices that are sometimes highlighted," Pudelski said.

The department's data was taken from the 2009-2010 school year, and showed tens of thousands of instances in which the techniques were reportedly used.

It also showed that that while black students represent 21 percent of students with disabilities, they comprise 44 percent of students with disabilities subjected to mechanical restraints.

It's unclear the circumstances or exact methods used in the cases. People on both sides of the debate said the new numbers don't show a complete picture.

Because they are based on a survey that relied on self-reporting in about 85 percent of schools, activists said there are likely many more cases.

Pudelski said because it's the first time schools were asked to compile the statistics, there was confusion among schools about how to count some situations, so there probably was over-reporting.

Reece L. Peterson, a special education professor at the University of Nebraska who has testified before Congress on the topic, said there's a consensus in the special education community that seclusion and restraint should only be used in rare emergency situations where there's a threat of someone getting hurt and that most people today view the use of mechanical devices such as strapping kids in chairs or wrapping them in blankets to manage behavior as inappropriate.

Based on the department's new numbers, Peterson said, "there is some evidence that these things are being used on a basis more widely than simply these kind of emergency situations."

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