Public schools in Jackson, Mississippi, will no longer handcuff students to poles or other objects and will train staff at its alternative school on better methods of discipline.
Mississippi's second-largest school district agreed to the settlement with the Southern Poverty Law Centre, which had sued over the practice of shackling pupils to a pole at the district's Capital City Alternative School.
Nationwide, a report from the US Department of Education showed tens of thousands of pupils, 70% of them disabled, were strapped down or physically restrained in school in 2009-10. Advocates for disabled students say restraints are often abused, causing injury and sometimes death.
The Mississippi lawsuit was filed in June 2011 by Jeanette Murry on behalf of her then-16-year-old son, who has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It said staff routinely restrained students for hours for offences as minor as dress code violations, forcing them to eat lunch while chained to a stair railing and to shout for help when they needed to go to the toilet.
The settlement, approved by US District Judge Tom Lee, says all district employees will stop handcuffing students younger than 13 and can only handcuff older students for crimes. In no case will employees shackle a student to a fixed object such as a railing, a pole, a desk or a chair. "It's apparent there were severe problems that we hope now are being addressed and will be alleviated," Judge Lee told lawyers in court, just before signing the settlement order.
Troubles at the alternative school helped spark the proceedings that have jeopardised the accreditation of the entire 30,000-student district.
The suit also reinforces criticism of alternative schools statewide. A 2009 report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that such schools "overemphasised punishment at the expense of remediation".
That report urged that alternative schools focus instead on "intensive services delivered by a well-qualified staff in a highly structured but positive environment", so that students could return to and succeed at regular schools.
Nationwide, there are no federal standards, although legislation is pending in Congress. The US Department of Education says Mississippi is one of 13 states with no rules governing restraints.
National experts have said seclusion and restraint should only be used in emergencies when there is a threat of someone getting hurt. But people who are not properly trained resort to restraints when students get out of control, they say.