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Anti-Charter Bias In Politico Piece On School Discipline

Journalist spends bulk of article focused on use of restraint and seclusion in charter schools

Politico Magazine is out with a new piece from freelance journalist Ben Hattem on the use of restraint and seclusion in schools that not only misses the mark, but leaves readers with the unfounded impression that the overuse of these practices are primarily an issue at charter schools.

Part of the problem appears to be that Hattem lacks the context needed to do the story justice. For example, he makes the point that restraint and seclusion techniques are “disproportionately used on special education students,” and yet that makes sense to those of us who have experience working in schools. Restraint and seclusion are only supposed to be used in extreme situations, such as when a student’s behavior poses a threat to themselves or others. Teachers most often encounter these types of behaviors when dealing with students who are identified as having emotional or behavioral disorders and therefore have an IEP.

Elsewhere, Hattem draws conclusions that are not logically supported by the facts he presents, such as we see in this paragraph:

“For the 2013-14 school year, the most recent year for which federal data are also available, Connecticut found that about 28 students were restrained out of every 1,000 served under IDEA, the federal special education law. In the federal data collection for that year, the nationwide data showed about 8 students getting restrained out of every 1,000 IDEA students. For charter schools alone, the nationwide reported rate dropped to fewer than 4 students per 1,000. If Connecticut’s numbers are representative of the national rate, it appears that more than 70 percent of restraints used on special education students in public schools are not reported to the federal government, and more than 85 percent in charters.”

Does Hattem have any evidence that Connecticut’s numbers are representative of the national rate? Nope. So how can he extrapolate that schools are underreporting the use of restraints across the country by anywhere from 70 to 80 percent? (Oh, and someone tell Hattem that charter schools are public schools.)

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Freelance journalist (and current Stanford Law student) Ben Hattem.

However, the biggest issue with Hattem’s piece is that most of it focuses on the use of restraint and seclusion at charter schools, which doesn’t make sense when you consider that less than 10% of the nation’s public school students attend charters. Although he fails to provide any evidence that the inappropriate use of restraint and seclusion practices are more prevalent in charters than traditional schools, he cites the allegations made in two lawsuits filed against charter schools in D.C. at length, which amounts to little more than a cheap shot.

Why? Because courts haven’t determined whether the claims made by the plaintiffs have merit. Plus, privacy laws prevent school officials from addressing the specific allegations made on behalf of students in those cases, which means they can’t truly defend themselves against them in the press.

Does the use of restraint and seclusion in schools raise troubling questions? Definitely. Are there schools using restraint and seclusion inappropriately? Almost certainly. But Hattem missed the opportunity to shed light on the scope of the problem by using his article to paint charters in an unflattering light.

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Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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