A state law that gives more guidance and allows more flexibility for calming upset students with special needs when all else fails is changing the way local school districts apply seclusion and restraint practices.

The new legislation redefines methods educators use to pacify at-risk students and students with disabilities who could otherwise hurt themselves or others, to make the measures seem less punitive.

The new law makes the state policy clearer because it differentiates between “seclusion” and an “exclusionary time-out,” Bethel schools Superintendent Christine Carver said.

Under the new law, seclusion is defined as confining a student to a room and preventing the student from leaving. But an exclusionary time-out is when a student is monitored temporarily in a separate space from peers to give the student a chance to calm down.

“Sometimes a time-out is a really positive thing for a kid,” Carver said. “It’s usually initiated by a student when they need a minute to regroup and leave, whether it’s to a certain safe place or just walking around the building.”

Other school districts are studying language in the new law to understand it better.

In Newtown, for example, educators plan to update district rules about how to bring students safely to a secluded area. Deborah Mailloux-Petersen, the special education director, said some of the techniques staff had been using might now be considered physical restraint.

“It is a little bit of a gray area,” she said.

The state law comes at a time when lawmakers in Washington, D.C., are also calling for reform in the way school districts deal with students who are disruptive.

Sen. Chris Murphy and other Congressional Democrats have proposed a bill that would ban seclusion and limit physical restraint to emergencies only, for example.

“It’s barbaric for schools to confine students alone in locked rooms, or to use abusive methods to restrain little children,” Murphy said in a statement. “Our bill would establish strong federal standards to keep students safe, while giving school staff alternatives to respond to challenging situations in the right way.”

Parents such as New Milford’s Nancy Webb have been critical of the way educators have practiced restraint and seclusion policies, especially at Hill and Plain Elementary School.

Webb, who has two children who are on the autism spectrum, said as much during a meeting in September when the New Milford Board of Education passed its policy conforming to the new state law. She said staff members were not trained well enough, and that seclusion was not being properly reported to parents.

“That’s not okay,” Webb said at the September meeting. “The things we’ve uncovered with other families in the district is scary.”

New standards

In addition to New Milford, Danbury has also adopted new policies to adhere to the state law. Bethel, Newtown and Ridgefield are in the process of updating their regulations.

Exclusionary time-outs were used before, but had not been codified into law, said Vincent Mustaro, senior staff associate for policy services for the Connecticut Board of Education. He said they are not meant to be a punishment.

“You hope the exclusionary time-out is going to be terminated as soon as possible,” Mustaro said.

During the 2016-17 school year, educators across the state had to restrain or seclude students about 37,900 times, according to data collected by the state Department of Education. The number of exclusionary time-outs are not reported to the state.

jperkins@newstimes.com 203-731-3337