AUSTIN, Texas — A bipartisan group of Texas representatives are hoping to end dangerous restraint in public schools. Teachers and staff members can restrain students when they’re a danger to themselves or others, but many parents say their children were abused.
Jeanna Tenbrink said her daughter Leah was maltreated at a Houston-area public school in 2020. Because she has autism, a speech impediment and an intellectual disability, Leah cannot use words to express how she’s feeling or doing. Now 16 years old, Leah still has a hard time going to school and interacting with family after her traumatic experiences.
“The trauma that Leah endured is not something that she can process through counseling,” Tenbrink said. “Her security and safety in school have been violated, and she still continues to struggle.”
Tenbrink saw some classroom footage after she hired a lawyer to get access. She said the video was so edited that she may never know the entire story of what happened to her daughter. Now, she has access to Leah’s classroom at any time.
“I witnessed teachers cursing, provoking and demeaning my daughter. I watched male students kick and violate her privacy in the bathroom,” she said.
Leah isn’t the only victim. During the 2021-2022 school year, Texas school districts and charter schools self-reported nearly 23,000 episodes of school staff physically restraining students with disabilities, according to Disability Rights Texas (DRTx) based on a TEA open records request. That number is a few thousand less than the prior school year, but DRTx thinks it’ll go up again with current staffing shortages.
Rep. Lacey Hull, R-Houston, has filed House Bill 459. She calls it the “No Kids in Cuffs” bill. It passed the House last session, but time ran out in the Senate. The bill would prohibit the physical restraint or use of chemical irritants on children 10 years or younger.
“The stories are heartbreaking,” Rep. Hull said. “As a parent, I can’t even imagine that happening to my child, and how brave they were to be able to come here and share those stories. But their stories are exactly why the bill that I have ‘No Kids in Cuffs,’ and some of the other bills are needed to prevent these restraints and this abuse from happening to these children.”
Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, has filed a companion bill. Rep. Hull hopes with bipartisan support in both chambers, it’ll make it to the governor’s desk this year. She said she’s spoken with other Republicans who are supportive of this bill once again.
“It’s not just about kids with disabilities; that’s a huge part of it. But just children in general being able to go to school and not be restrained or pepper sprayed is huge to create a safe learning environment and to make sure that these kids are treated properly,” said Hull.
Advocates are also asking lawmakers to draft legislation that would make schools keep classroom footage on file for a longer period, create a registry of teachers and staff members who have harmed students and ban prone and supine restraints. Cameras can be put into special education classrooms upon request. The law is supposed to protect students who might not be able to report abuse or neglect, according to DRTx.
“We’re asking for transparency. We’re asking for accountability. We’re asking for being proactive versus reactive,” said Rep. Mary González, D-Clint.
Democratic Reps. James Talarico of Round Rock and John Bucy of Austin also voiced their support for reforms on Monday.
Parents and advocates believe lawmakers are the vessel for change in Texas public schools. They want some of the state’s nearly $33 billion budget surplus to be used to protect students.