How a ‘drumbeat’ approach helped us tell the story of Michigan’s failure to curb student restraint and seclusion

Published on
January 26, 2023

Lily writes about education, Dave writes about politics. In 2022 – an election year – breaking news kept us both pretty busy. 

But after receiving a tip about controversial tactics used on Michigan students, we resolved to investigate restraint and seclusion in the state’s public schools. We wanted to discover why parents told us they felt schools had traumatized their children, using the information to publish a series holding the state and schools accountable for tactics disproportionately deployed on students with disabilities.

Restraint is when adults use force to pin down students, while seclusion involves isolating a child alone to a room, which is often bare and silent. In Michigan, we found educators restrained and secluded children nearly 94,000 times over the past five years, despite an effort by lawmakers to end the practice unless there was an emergency.

As we reported this story with help from the National Fellowship at USC’s Center for Health Journalism, we opted to take a “drumbeat” approach to our investigation: We would publish our findings incrementally, often through shorter pieces than a traditional newspaper investigation. We plan to continue our investigation using this approach in 2023, too. 

We’ve learned that publishing this way benefited our readers and benefited us as reporters. We kicked off the series with a traditional longform piece, and have followed up with updates as we learn more.

The approach helped us take readers along with us on our reporting, while giving readers information in smaller pieces that were easier to digest. For example: In one story, we detailed our public records battle with school districts. In another, we wrote about a school district that used seclusion more than any other in Michigan, and officials’ refusal to answer any questions. 

Along the way, we picked up new readers and collected thread for new stories to tell. 

For beat reporters balancing major coverage areas in an election year, the approach allowed us to keep our investigation going while tackling our day jobs. It’s a great method of investigation when two reporters collaborate, too: We could pick up the slack for one another when one of us was busy. For instance: When elections swamped Dave, Lily stepped in. 

While we have more to investigate, we’ve gathered a significant amount of information from our reporting. Here’s what we’ve learned so far about restraint and seclusion in Michigan schools: 

  • Michigan’s system for schools to report incidents of restraint and seclusion is flawed. We found at least two school districts that didn’t report any children restrained or secluded, when parents said otherwise and reporting is required by law. 

  • The state has no way to enforce restraint and seclusion laws, which were passed in 2016 in an effort to limit usage of restraint and seclusion. Lawmakers said they wanted to effectively ban the practice, but former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, architect of the legislative package, told the Detroit Free Press that the only way he could get enough votes was to ensure the bills did not include consequences for breaking the laws. Michigan Department of Education officials also said the agency has no power to ensure schools are not using restraint and seclusion in an inappropriate manner. 

  • The 2016 laws banned seclusion and restraint, but included some carve outs. Both can be used in emergencies, but not for longer than 15 minutes for kids in elementary and middle school, or 20 minutes for kids in middle and high school. We identified multiple cases where children were secluded for more than an hour.

  • Districts are supposed to analyze the data they collect in an effort to find ways to reduce how often they use seclusion and restraint. We asked the 15 districts that reported using these tactics the most for any analysis they had conducted. Only one provided any written documentation beyond the numbers reported to the Michigan Department of Education. Two others asked for $3,198.75 and $176.40 for documents. The Free Press declined to pay those fees, arguing the records are public and should be released for free or nominal costs.

  • The records fees we faced in this series were significant. We asked 47 Michigan school districts to provide us records under state FOIA laws that would outline incidents of seclusion and restraint. Twenty-six districts replied with an invoice, charging us records fees ranging from $167 to $19,740, for a total of nearly $85,000. We haven’t paid these fees and are still working out a way to get these records, which have been released in other states.

There’s more to come. Over and over again, we found that readers are clamoring for the solution to all of these issues, and an answer to the question: If you can’t seclude or restrain a violent child during a mental health crisis, what should educators do? 

There’s no easy or simple answer to that question. But there are educators trying to answer it, as well as techniques and strategies to mitigate restraint and seclusion. Lily recently traveled to Pennsylvania to explore solutions, and will publish that story soon.

We are starting to see impact from this series. Recently, the governor and other lawmakers said it’s clear the state’s laws can be improved, following our reporting. But just because people in power say they support change, it doesn’t always mean change will happen. 

That’s perhaps the greatest benefit of using a drumbeat approach to an investigation – sustained pressure. While in theory a powerful bureaucrat can withstand criticism from one news cycle, ongoing coverage that spans months ensures leaders must continually grapple with the problems plaguing many of their constituents. 

For us as reporters on this investigation, it means: We’ll keep following the story.