A ‘misunderstanding’ between the Ministry of Education and two specialist schools led to a breach of legal requirements for reporting the use of physical restraint on students

Two schools responsible for almost a fifth of all uses of physical restraint in the education system suddenly stopped reporting all restraints to the Government – a legal breach only identified following inquiries from Newsroom.

However, the schools have pointed the finger at the Ministry of Education, saying it endorsed an “apples for apples” approach in the data they were providing.

The use of physical restraints on children in state facilities has been in the spotlight after a Newsroom investigation into alleged assaults on children at Oranga Tamariki’s care and protection residences.

Since 2017, schools have been required to report how many times they have had to physically restrain children.

Westbridge Residential School in Auckland and Halswell Residential College in Christchurch, residential specialist schools which house and educate children with complex social, behavioural and learning needs, are among the highest users of physical restraints.

According to information provided to Newsroom under the Official Information Act, the schools used restraints 503 times in 2018, 568 times in 2019, 125 times in 2020, and 18 times in 2021 as of July 30.

(A third residential specialist school included in the initial information request, Salisbury School in Nelson, confirmed separately to Newsroom it has prohibited physical restraints since 2011, meaning it can be excluded from the data.)

There were 47 restraint-related injuries to students or staff recorded in 2018, either as a result of the restraint or the incident which led up to it, compared with 17 in 2019 and five in 2020.

Reporting change behind restraints drop

In 2018, the two schools alone were responsible for almost one in every five cases of physical restraint across the entire New Zealand education system.

While the recent decline in restraint notifications might seem significant at face value, the ministry said that drop-off was “partly” due to a change in the way two of the schools were reporting physical restraints.

“These schools have been reporting restraints occurring ‘in-school’ only, whereas their historical reporting included notifications of restraints in residences as well.”

But as the board of a residential school was responsible for the residence, it was legally required to report all restraints that took place there and not just at the school.

The ministry said the schools had been asked to retrospectively complete and provide restraint notification forms for incidents that occurred outside of school hours.

Halswell and Westbridge train their staff in physical restraints through an international programme called Safe Crisis Management, which differs from others in allowing the use of restraints while a person is lying on the floor.

So-called floor restraints are not taught by a number of other programmes, due to the extra risk of injury or death.

Dave Turnbull, the chair of the combined board of trustees for the Halswell and Westbridge schools, told Newsroom the board had discussed changing the way it reported restraints at a meeting in September last year, which had been attended by two ministry officials.

Turnbull said one of the officials agreed with the board’s assertion that to “be comparing apples with apples”, it would be reasonable to only report restraints that occurred within normal school hours.

“We believed we were fulfilling our legal obligations, because we believed a senior manager at the Ministry of Education would not have put us wrong if I was trying to fudge things and pull a fast one.”

Restraints both at school and in the residences continued to be shared with the board, but only those in school were being passed on to the ministry for national reporting.

“We believed we were fulfilling our legal obligations, because we believed a senior manager at the Ministry of Education would not have put us wrong if I was trying to fudge things and pull a fast one.”

The ministry had only flagged its concern with the new approach when it contacted the board in late July or early August as part of its response to Newsroom’s OIA request.

Turnbull said the schools did want its use of restraints to reduce and eventually be eliminated, although he had some reservations about whether that would actually be possible.

“As yet, I haven’t heard anyone come up with a response to a student, and it can be a male or a female student, who might be a big bully who is, let’s say, 100 kilos, who loses it … we have difficult kids at our schools, very difficult kids.”

Turnbull confirmed the schools allowed the use of floor restraints as taught in the Safe Crisis Management programme, but said they were “very rarely used”, while staff had to be formally signed off to use the holds after training, which continued on an ongoing basis.

There had never been any concerns raised with the schools about their use of restraints, he said, drawing a contrast with the Oranga Tamariki whistleblower video published by Newsroom.

“When I saw that, my immediate response was, that’s a case of assault. It’s not a restraint. It’s an assault.”

Halswell and Westbridge previously fought off closure under the National government in 2012, and Turnbull said the relationship between the schools and the ministry was still “at times strained” with apparent concern over their operating costs.

Ministry: ‘misunderstanding’ to blame for non-reporting

Helen Hurst, the Ministry of Education’s deputy secretary for sector enablement and support, told Newsroom that Halswell and Westbridge were not reporting restraints outside of school hours “due to a misunderstanding that it was not required”.

When the ministry became aware of the problem, it worked with the schools to bring them back in line with legislation, and was confident there was no intention to breach reporting requirements.

While it had noticed the drop-off in restraints, that had been attributed to declining school rolls and the expectation that restraint use would be minimised, rather than any change in reporting.

Asked about the schools’ use of floor restraints, Hurst said there were no national standards for trainers on the use of physical restraints on children, only broader ministry guidance.

It was staff and their employers who were responsible for managing workplace risk, and the schools had chosen a training provider which allowed the use of those holds.

Hurst said the use of physical restraint in schools could only be used to prevent “imminent harm to the student or another person”, and when there was no other option available.

“We expect all schools to actively work towards minimising its use, as it can be harmful to all those involved, including those witnessing its use.”

The ministry was in the final stages of developing a new training approach to help schools meet their obligations and minimise the use of restraint, and would release proposed rules and guidelines for consultation once that work was done.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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