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child support Paris Hilton joins calls for tougher law on restraint in Northern Ireland schools

Ms Hilton spoke out in support of Harry’s Law, a campaign led by Tyrone mother Deirdre Shakespeare after she realised how much her son Harry was being restrained at his special school after seeing a photo diary of his first year.

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Paris Hilton (PA)

Paris Hilton (PA)

Paris Hilton (PA)

Celebrity businesswoman Paris Hilton has made an open appeal to the NI Assembly to introduce tougher laws on when a child can be physically restrained at school, saying there needed to be "meaningful protections for children".

Ms Hilton spoke out in support of Harry’s Law, a campaign led by Tyrone mother Deirdre Shakespeare after she realised how much her son Harry was being restrained at his special school after seeing a photo diary of his first year.

While permission was granted by Harry's parents for him to be put in a chair at mealtimes, the extent of the use of restraints is now the subject of a legal dispute.

The campaign for Harry’s Law would make it compulsory for schools to report when they had restrained or isolated a child to parents and the Education Authority. It would also mean that more school staff were trained in more positive ways to address a child’s behaviour.

The Department of Education’s guidance on the issue - which hasn’t been updated since 1999 - states all incidents involving the use of reasonable force should be “rare” and recorded by schools, but the recording of such incidents is not a legal obligation.

The British Association of Social Workers Northern Ireland (BASWNI) has also said the practices could have damaging effects.

Tweeting to almost 17million followers on Wednesday, Ms Hilton appealed to Stormont’s Education Committee and its chairperson chairperson, Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle to provide “meaningful protections” to children.

It came after the committee held a hearing on restrictive practice, seclusion and restraint in schools.

In February, Ms Hilton testified to the Utah state senate about abuse she said she suffered as a teenager at a boarding school, including being forced into solitary confinement naked and being beaten.

MLAs heard from representatives from the International Coalition against Restraint and Seclusion (ICARS), who were named in Ms Hilton’s tweet, and Parent Action NI.

Orla Watt from Parent Action NI said children with special educational needs had “suffered” restraint and seclusion in special and mainstream schools in recent years and said there was a need for more training in the school community.

“We’d also like to request the appointment of a parent-carer champion similar to a mental health champion,” she said.

The suggestion was supported by MLAs Robbie Butler of the UUP and SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan, who said there was a “desperate need for a voice, someone central” to advocate for families.

ICARS said that stricter protocols on restraint and seclusion were needed so that the Assembly could fulfil obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Mrs Shakespeare and Beth Morrsion - who founded ICARS with Zoe Read - also gave evidence to the committee.

“The first step is ensuring mandatory recording and documenting of any incidents of physical or mechanical restraint or the use of seclusion on a child,” Mrs Shakespeare said.

Mr Lyttle said MLAs would “do everything that we can” to support tougher protocols.

Sinn Fein education spokesperson Pat Sheehan said there was an urgent need for an overhaul in the Department of Education’s approach and added it was “disturbing” there is still no legal obligation on schools to report incidents where children have been physically restrained or placed in seclusion.

“Current guidance in relation to restraint and seclusion only deals with the issue in terms of maintaining good order and discipline in the school setting and is completely unreflective of the reality of the additional needs of some children,” he said.

“There is a need for new and robust guidance to be urgently developed and for it to be underpinned by legislation. We need to see the Education Minister bring forward a framework to ensure effective oversight and accountability when it comes to dealing with these incidents.

“It’s also important that our school staff are supported with effective training so that they are equipped with the necessary skills to respond to challenging situations with more therapeutic responses.”

The Department of Education’s Ricky Irwin acknowledged further clarity was needed on when restraint and seclusion could be used in schools and that existing guidance was “out of date”.

“Now more than ever we need to provide clarity on physical intervention, especially when supporting pupils with very complex needs who require this intervention as part of their support plan,” he said.

“There is no legal requirement at present for schools to inform the department of incidents and any follow-up.”

The department is carrying out a review on the use of restraint and seclusion in school settings.

There is currently no timeline on when the review will be completed and any recommendations will have to be reviewed by Education Minister Peter Weir.

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