Chicago Public Schools violating state law on use of restraint, timeout in school, state says

empty desks in an empty classroom
The Illinois State Board of Education says that Chicago Public Schools is not in compliance with state law governing how and when students can be restrained or put in timeout at school. (Getty Creative)

This story has been updated to include additional comment from Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez. 

Chicago Public Schools has put students — especially those with disabilities — at risk by not training staff on the proper use of physical restraint and timeout as required under state law, a nearly-yearlong investigation by the Illinois State Board of Education has found.

Documents obtained by Chalkbeat Chicago show that untrained staff restrained or secluded students for long periods of time, used outlawed methods of restraint, and restrained students who were not a threat to themselves or others. 

The state has repeatedly warned CPS since the fall that it is not complying with state law  on restraint and timeout. In multiple letters sent to the district this school year, the state cites the district for not properly training staff and not notifying parents within a legally required 24-hour time frame when a child has been restrained at school. The state defines physical restraint as holding a student or other methods to restrict a student’s movement. 

In a letter dated April 18, the state board outlines a number of violations by the district. Among them: 

  • CPS failed to report 15 incidents involving restraints that took place between Feb. 1 and March 8. Four incidents were not reported to the state board’s reporting system, and in 10 of 23 incidents reviewed, parents were not notified within the required time frame. 
  • From Feb. 1 to March 8, the district reported seven incidents of either physical restraint over 15 minutes and timeouts or isolated timeouts over 30 minutes. But CPS did not clarify if licensed educators or therapists were involved to conduct an evaluation. The district also did not provide evidence that the staff involved were trained.  
  • In some reported incidents, students were restrained for even longer periods of time: 45 minutes at Prussing Elementary School and Nixon Elementary School, one hour at Jones College Prep, and one hour and 15 minutes at Peterson Elementary School. 
  • The district reported two incidents of prone physical restraint — when a student is placed face down and pressure is applied to their body to keep them in that position —  on Jan. 30 and Feb. 9 at Roosevelt and Fenger High Schools, respectively. The state outlawed prone physical restraint at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year.

In the letter, the state warns that the continued use of physical restraint, timeout, and isolated timeout “by untrained staff demonstrates that CPS is jeopardizing the health and safety of CPS students and staff.”

Terri Smith, a Chicago parent and advocate for students with disabilities, said the state findings echo her concerns about the district’s practices.

“Just when I think I’ve seen the worst, I see something worse like this,” said Smith. “They’re putting children at risk knowingly, wantonly, and maliciously. Everyone can see that they have made a conscious decision not to keep our children safe.”

Over her time as a parent at Chicago Public Schools, Smith said, she has lost confidence in the district to do right by students with disabilities — and believes many of the parents she works with feel the same.

When asked about the violations Wednesday at an unrelated press conference with Mayor Brandon Johnson, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said complying with state law is a “top priority” and the state’s requirements will be met “this summer before the school year starts.”  

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“We will make sure that this is corrected. Not only that, we’re going to make sure also that the programs get strengthened,” Martinez said. “This is an area that has been a challenge in our district for the last two decades, but we’re gonna fix it.”

State investigates Chicago in effort to reduce restraint in schools

The state opened a “systemic complaint investigation” in October after the district reported numerous instances of restraint performed by untrained staff, according to a letter dated Nov. 30, 2022. The use of restraint, seclusion, and timeout to discipline students in Illinois schools has been under scrutiny for several years.

In 2019, ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune published a joint investigation that uncovered how districts around the state were secluding students in isolated rooms, or quiet rooms, as a form of discipline. A majority of students featured in the investigation were students with disabilities. 

In 2021, the Illinois general assembly passed a law that prevents school staff and educators from locking students in isolated seclusion rooms and limits the use of restraint and time out on students. 

During a compliance check with Chicago Public Schools in August 2022, the state board found the district continually reporting violations to the 2021 state law — many included incidents where students were restrained or put in timeout by untrained staff and the use of restraint took place when students were not a threat to themselves or others. 

In late November, the state board sent CPS a list of action items to complete to comply with the state’s law. 

The district was required to notify all Chicago Public Schools parents of the violations contained in the November letter and findings in the April 18 letter. 

On May 26, the district sent an email to parents and guardians — after 4 p.m. the Friday before Memorial Day weekend — to notify them that the district is working with the State Board of Education to address violations for restraint and seclusion. 

The state also required the district to set up an email address where parents can submit concerns about restraint and timeout incidents. Parents can look up who’s trained in restraint and timeout at their schools and submit concerns to PRTO@cps.edu.

As of May 26, CPS officials said, 3,546 district staff had been trained in de-escalation and physical restraint training through a contractor called QBS LLC. But 422 still need to receive training. The state board requires two staff members per school building to be trained — a requirement that had not been met as of the April 18 letter.

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The state board is still working with the district to comply with state laws for restraint and timeout, according to Jackie Matthews, a spokeswoman for the State Board of Education.

“Student safety and well-being is our number one priority, and these requirements were put in place as essential precautions to protect students,” she told Chalkbeat.

In an emailed statement to Chalkbeat, a CPS spokesperson said the district remains “committed to continually reviewing and improving our services, working closely with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and all partners, including parents and advocacy groups, to co-design an improved system that not only is in compliance with all State and Federal education requirements, but meets our own high goals for excellence.“

If Chicago does not come into compliance, the state could put the district on probation. If the school district still fails to comply after at least 60 days, it could lose state recognition, resulting in a loss of state funding and blocking sport teams from participating in state athletic associations. In 2021, some districts were placed on probation for not complying with the state’s mask mandate during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, Matthews said putting a district on probation is the last resort and the state board will continue to provide assistance to help students. 

Students with disabilities are often restrained in classrooms

In one case cited in the state’s April 18 letter, a student with disabilities was restrained on three days within a 30-day period and the staff involved in the restraint security officers, a special education classroom assistant, and a school counselor — were not invited to attend the student’s Individualized Education Program meeting. 

Such incidents can reinforce the mistrust that students with disabilities and their families have in Chicago Public Schools, which has a history of failing to meet their needs. In 2016,  Chicago was found to be denying services to students with disabilities leading to state oversight, fell behind on creating or updating Individualized Education Programs during the COVID-19 pandemic, and failed to offer transportation to students when school buildings reopened in 2021

Frank Lally, an education policy analyst at Access Living — a nonprofit organization that advocates for Chicagoans with disabilities — said one of the major victories from the 2021 law limiting the use of restraint and timeout was ensuring that parents would be notified if a child was restrained. 

But in Chicago, that is not happening, the state found.

“That struck me because there is a lack of trust between the district and parents of students with disabilities going back several years,” Lally said. “It’s kind of disheartening.” 

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Students have legally binding documents spelling out what supports and interventions they should receive, including which staff should support them when behavioral issues arise. In many cases, these are in the student’s Individualized Education Programs or Behavioral Intervention Plans. However, staff must be trained in de-escalation and physical restraint to intervene when a student has a behavioral issue.

Teachers union calls for firing top district leaders

Last week, the Chicago Teachers Union called for the firing of Stephanie Jones, the district’s top official overseeing services for students with disabilities. The union’s House of Delegates took a vote of no confidence in Jones last Wednesday for her “dismal failures to protect the district’s most vulnerable students, continued violation of special education laws and the creation of a toxic workplace.”

“Tonight our members said, enough. Enough with the lack of services and support, enough with ignoring the needs of our students, and enough with violating state law,” CTU president Stacy Davis Gates said in a statement.  

Chicago Public Schools reported to the state board that Jones was the designated official responsible for restraint and timeout policies and incidents, according to the April 18 letter. Designated officials should maintain a copy of records, be notified of every incident by the end of the school day on which has occurred, and receive documentation or any evaluation of any incident that exceeds 15 minutes of physical restraint or 30 minutes for timeout, according to the state board.

Jones told the state board on Dec. 23 that she gave this authority to her team and to Erin Miller, then a manager at the Office of Diverse Learners and Support Services. 

Miller left Chicago Public Schools on March 3 and her team set up a rotation, with each staffer taking one day of the week to review restraint and timeout data. 

According to the board’s April 18 letter, Jones doesn’t meet the “requirements that the designated official must complete and is not acting as the designated official” and no other CPS staffer has taken on the duties.

As a result, the state board said, “CPS does not have a designated official who is informed and maintains RTO data as required.”

A group of teachers who challenged CTU leadership during its last internal election has also called for the ouster of other top district leaders, including CEO Martinez. In a statement, they said the violations extend “far beyond” Jones’ office. 

The group of teachers — the REAL caucus — also called on the district to remove all police officers from schools, a decision currently left to Local School Councils. There have been instances of school resource officers using restraint on students in the past, such as a high-profile 2020 incident at Marshall High School. The teen whom officers dragged down a staircase sued the city of Chicago and was eventually awarded a $300,000 settlement.

A spokesperson for Chicago Public Schools responded to the teachers’ call for removing Jones and Martinez in a statement, “Our top leadership at CPS has been committed and transparent about the need for improved systems, strategies, and services to support our most vulnerable students through our Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services.”

Becky Vevea contributed to this story.

Samantha Smylie is the state education reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering school districts across the state, legislation, special education, and the state board of education. Contact Samantha at ssmylie@chalkbeat.org.

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