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'Districts should not torture children': Seclusion and restraint in Wisconsin schools • Wisconsin Examiner

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'Districts should not torture children': Seclusion and restraint in Wisconsin schools • Wisconsin Examiner


A seclusion room in the Fox Valley school that Streck taught at and the her son attended. A sign on the door states the room is a “safe space.” (Photo courtesy Stephanie Streck)

Melanie Becker’s son isn’t restrained by school staff or secluded in a room away from his classmates to the same extent that he once was, but his past experiences continue to color his perception of school.

“I feel like in some part of my, like, deep subconscious I’m afraid of school now,” he said. 

The 14-year-old, who is autistic and deals with other challenges including depression and anxiety, was suspended on his first day of kindergarten in 2015 for locking himself inside a restroom with another student. His mother said he was scared and wanted to hide, adding that he didn’t mean any harm and that the other student just happened to be in the restroom.

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When he returned to school after the suspension, he was separated from other students and placed in a classroom by himself with a teacher.

“When other children would come in and out of the room, he would get all excited and hyper,” said Becker, who lives in western Wisconsin. In response, staff put the 5-year-old in a padded room and blocked the door with a gym mat.

“It was supposed to make him calm down but it did the opposite. It just made him more and more mad,” Becker said. 

One month into kindergarten, he was transferred by the school to a school in Minnesota through an out-of-district placement. His mother said he was still restrained and secluded at the new school, but it happened less frequently. 

“It was supposed to make him calm down but it did the opposite. It just made him more and more mad.”

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– Melanie Becker, a parent

After crossing the state line for school for two years, Becker’s son returned to the Hudson School District for the second and third grades.

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“It’s just the same stuff started again, constantly putting him in that room for stuff,” Becker said. 

Once, Becker said, her son forgot his jacket when his class was going outside. After being told that he couldn’t get it, he tried to run back into the school building and was secluded for not listening to staff. 

“It was just that kind of stuff where it comes down to kind of like a power struggle all the time with these autistic kids,” Becker said. “Their brains are wired differently.”

For decades, advocates have sought to limit the use of seclusion and restraint in schools due to the mental and physical effects on children, many of whom are elementary school students with disabilities. Yet the practices continue to be used across Wisconsin, and in the recent legislative session some lawmakers sought unsuccessfully to loosen restrictions meant to protect children.

In the 2021-22 school year, Wisconsin schools reported almost 6,000 seclusion and 7,000 restraint incidents to the state Department of Public Instruction. Students with disabilities were disproportionately involved in the incidents, continuing the trend from previous reports.

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Families and disability rights advocates say more work needs to be done to limit the use of seclusion and restraint throughout the state. Among their concerns are overuse of the practices, inadequate funding for special education in Wisconsin, whether the state Department of Public Instruction could be doing more to reduce the use of seclusion and restraint in schools, and the recent legislative efforts. 

Where state law stands on seclusion and restraint

Restraint and seclusion are meant to be measures of last resort for dealing with students who exhibit disruptive behavior, yet the practices remain widespread.

Wisconsin adopted its first law to regulate seclusion and restraint use in 2010 — following public hearings in the state Capitol that included testimony about students being locked in rooms alone or injured from restraints. Around the same time, Congress started examining the issue due to a GAO report that found some students had died as a result of the practices. Incidents similar to those described in the GAO report have occurred in Wisconsin. A 2009 report by statewide advocacy groups detailed the death of a 7-year-old girl in 2006 due to injuries sustained from restraint use in school. 

Wisconsin state law was updated in 2019 to further restrict the use of seclusion and restraint and to require schools to report data about the practices to the state Department of Public Instruction.

Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, a civil rights attorney and longtime advocate for limiting seclusion and restraint use in Wisconsin, said the new laws have helped stop the worst cases that used to occur in Wisconsin schools.

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“As someone who’s been following this and representing children for decades, I think the really egregious examples are gone,” Spitzer-Resnick said. “We no longer have seclusion rooms that would shock the conscience like we used to — with insulation coming out of the walls. We no longer have kids tied, locked in rooms so long they’re urinating and defecating in the rooms. … We’ve gotten the really horrific stuff out.” 

Mary Cerretti, an advocacy specialist with Disability Rights Wisconsin, also said the laws have helped significantly with limiting the worst cases, but said she still sees some really bad cases. She also added that sometimes students and families report an instance of seclusion or restraint, but schools deny it happened.

Spitzer-Resnick said he and other advocates knew while working to get the first bill passed that the real challenge to eliminating seclusion and restraint would be getting sufficient funding for support staff and training. He said proper support would help accomplish the positive goal of figuring out “how do we teach appropriate behavior,” and “how do you deal with difficult, challenging behaviors.” 

Fifteen years after the passage of that law, Spitzer-Resnick said the challenge hasn’t been met because the Legislature refuses to allocate state money to adequately support schools and special education.

DPI’s role in limiting seclusion and restraint practices

Advocates seeking to limit seclusion and restraint expressed concerns about whether enough is being done by the Department of Public Instruction to keep schools accountable.

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According to DPI spokesperson Chris Bucher the agency analyzes the data, identifies schools with high rates of seclusion and restraint and provides support to those schools. 

The agency has identified three trends: seclusion and restraint incidents disproportionately include special education students with Individual Education Programs (IEPs); the incidents almost exclusively happen on the elementary level and they involve a relatively small number of students. 

It was always the teachers saying, ‘Well, you’re not listening to me, head down’ — and they would force her head down onto a desk.

– Joshua Rabel, a parent

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DPI’s report on the 2021-22 school year shows a total of 1,920 students — 79% of whom were students with IEPs — were involved in seclusion incidents and 2,856 — 76% of whom were students with IEPs — were involved in restraint incidents. The data shows an average of 3.08 seclusions and 2.42 restraints per student involved.

Bucher said DPI assigns a consultant to work with districts with high numbers of incidents to help identify a root cause — a process that includes looking at attendance, student health surveys and school climate. 

Bucher also said that the use of seclusion and restraint is often a symptom of larger underlying problems including lack of teacher training or understaffing. 

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“While the raw numbers between two schools may look the same in terms of numbers of seclusion and restraint, the root causes are likely to vary widely between schools and districts and therefore require different approaches to address them,” Bucher said. “What schools need is support, technical assistance, coaching and resources to assist them that align to their local circumstances.” 

Becker agrees that short staffing and teacher stress are contributing factors.

“They don’t have a staff member that can sit with my son in a room for an hour trying to help him calm down, and sometimes that’s what it takes,” Becker said. 

Becker added that she doesn’t think staff realized how traumatizing the experiences have been for her son, who deals with claustrophobia and PTSD as a result of the seclusion and restraint. 

Her son said he still has difficulties in school, but he believes the teachers in his current school have good intentions. When asked about how he could be better supported, he said better trained staff, who know how to talk to him and help calm him down, would be helpful.

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Becker said her son hasn’t been restrained or secluded in about a year and a half. She said the school is a little more proactive now that he is older.

But when they’re little, it’s easier to just pick them up and put them in a room and now my son’s 5 feet 6 inches, 125 pounds so they can’t really do that to him anymore.

– Melanie Becker, a western Wisconsin parent

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“It’s unfortunate because, now that he’s 14, we’re starting to try and do the work on self regulating and figuring out triggers… and we could have been doing this in kindergarten,” Becker said. “But when they’re little, it’s easier to just pick them up and put them in a room and now my son’s 5 feet 6 inches, 125 pounds so they can’t really do that to him anymore.” 

Schools are not required under state law to take any action if they have a high number of seclusions and restraints, but Bucher said that schools are generally accepting of support DPI offers, including training around state law and requirements, behavioral intervention plans, trauma-informed practices and grant support to address behavioral needs. 

The agency identified 32 outlier schools in the first year that data was reported to DPI. Bucher said 31 showed dramatic decreases in the use of seclusion and restraint in the following year — partly due to remote instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One school that reported high numbers was Merrill Elementary, which is part of the Oshkosh Area School District. For the 2019-20 school year, Merrill reported 97 seclusion and 100 restraint incidents — a total of 197 incidents. The following year, the school reported 26 total incidents, and in the most recent year, its numbers rose to 47 total incidents. 

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Bucher said many of the schools with high numbers in the first year have showed sustained improvement. 

Oshkosh Area School District is in its third year of a competitive grant offered by DPI to improve outcomes for students with IEPs. Through that grant, DPI has provided the district with improvement strategies and the district has worked with coaches who have provided additional support.

Linda Pierron, the district’s director of special education, said those programs help “teachers conquer those challenging behaviors and just focus on building those strong relationships with students.” 

Spitzer-Resnick says he was glad to see DPI working with some districts that have failed to eliminate the use of the techniques. However, he added that he believes “shining the glaring light of the public on those districts is critical,” so that districts are “publicly shamed into finally stopping the unnecessary use of seclusion and restraint.” Parents, he said, need to be aware that they live in districts with this problem, “so that hopefully they can elect school board members who understand that their districts should not torture children in this manner.” 

Spitzer-Resnick also said he would like to see DPI publicly praise school districts that have eliminated the use of seclusion and restraint.

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“I’m confident that there are schools, school districts, school principals, who figured out how to never use seclusion and restraint,” Spitzer-Resnick said. “Those schools and school districts need to be amplified, need to be learned from and need to be used as examples for the other side of the story.”

Some of those suggestions would require additional resources for the department, Bucher said.

“From a capacity standpoint, the DPI could potentially gather anecdotal information about practices schools use that prevent the use of seclusion and restraint,” he said. “It would take far more time and resources to identify evidence-based practices… specific to the reduction of seclusion and restraint that could be scaled up, replicated and implemented at the state level.” 

He noted DPI has sought additional funding to provide more support and resources for special education and mental health and will continue to do so.

Act 118, while it required DPI to collect seclusion and restraint data, did not provide any additional resources to address the issue. 

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A seclusion room in the Fox Valley school that Streck taught at and the her son attended. A sign on the door states the room is a “safe space.” (Photo courtesy Stephanie Streck)

The long-lasting impacts of seclusion and restraint

Advocates and parents of students who have experienced seclusion and restraint in classrooms emphasize that the consequences of the techniques on students last for a long time.

Fox Valley parent Stephanie Streck was a fourth-grade teacher at the school where her then-7-year-old son was restrained and secluded in 2020 and 2021. (She asked that the name of the school be withheld.) Her son’s experience, she said, changed her view on the issue. 

“I had no idea that he would have an emotional response three years later to having a shoulder touched,” Streck said. The words staff used to describe the techniques, telling him they were keeping him ‘safe,’ as they did things that upset him, undermined his sense of trust and confused him, she added. “I had no idea that after only four times of people using nonviolent crisis intervention that he can’t hear the words ‘safe’ and ‘helpful’ and know them as the words that they really are.” 

Streck had experience as a teacher with nonviolent crisis intervention training, which often focuses on addressing challenging behaviors in a proactive, effective and safe manner. At one point she was a member of the school’s team that responded to crises. She said, though, that by the time her son was restrained she felt the core message of her nonviolent crisis intervention training had been “diluted.” 

The words staff used to describe the techniques, telling him they were keeping him ‘safe,’ as they did things that upset him, undermined his sense of trust and confused him, Streck added.

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Streck’s son, who is autistic and has an individualized education program, did not learn certain rules until he had broken them, Streck said. Among those rules were playground boundaries that weren’t explained until he went too far, which led to teachers yelling at him, which led to him running and teachers running to catch him. 

Streck said her son sometimes retreated to her classroom. She said she would allow him to stay until there was a break in her teaching and then she would encourage him to go back to his classroom. 

“[My classroom] was kind of like his take-a-break space. That was tolerated for six months. There was no problem… One day, the principal decided that it was no longer acceptable for him to do so,” Streck said. She wasn’t told what prompted the change. 

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The next time he tried to go into his mother’s classroom the situation quickly escalated

Streck said staff members, who were stopping him from going into the room, tried to prevent him from running and his reaction was to fight, swing his arms and throw his iPad. This led to two teachers using “nonviolent crisis intervention” techniques, which included pulling his wrist with one hand and his shoulder with the other hand. He was then placed in a room where a staff member held the door closed. 

“He needed connection and he didn’t get any of that,” Streck said.

Streck said her son was restrained three times and secluded four times that year. Three years after the incidents, Streck said he still cannot be touched without flinching and has not returned full time to public school.

The workspace of Stephanie Streck’s son — next to a seclusion room at a Fox Valley school. Information containing her son’s name has been covered. (Photo courtesy Stephanie Streck)

Streck removed her son from the school in June 2021 and he now participates in a program that helps him visit a school building for about 35 minutes a week. She said he’s been trying to stay a little longer each week.

“I’m so grateful that my son doesn’t have any physical ailments from what happened but that also doesn’t discount the fact that he still has trauma,” Streck said. “Every decision you make has a cost and the decision to remove him from my math lesson in January of 2021 — we’re in such a negative balance because of it. … He has had so many missed opportunities for the last three years because of that experience.”

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Streck has left the school and now works in a different district. She said it became too difficult for her to stay because she just viewed her colleagues differently.

“It’s a dang good school and I think that scares me the most. I liked working there. It’s a good place to be and they were still using seclusion and restraint in moments where it didn’t need to be used,” Streck said. “I can’t imagine schools that are understaffed or [where] the staff was uneducated.”

Lawmakers propose loosening restrictions on student restraint 

Public school officials and advocates have criticized the current state budget for providing inadequate resources for special education in Wisconsin. Some say tight budgets are one reason the practices of seclusion and restraint continue in schools. 

“If we could spend more money — money and more time and more resources — on helping kids expose what is going wrong and how they can ask for what they need, there would be less need for seclusion or restraint,” Streck said.

DPI Superintendent Jill Underly said in January that she was working on her next budget request to the state Legislature, including a special education reimbursement increase. 

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The most recent state budget raised that reimbursement rate from 30% to 33.3%; DPI and Gov. Tony Evers had requested that it be increased to 60%.

While declining to raise special education reimbursements to the two-thirds mark, some lawmakers also expressed concern that teachers aren’t able to use restraint in enough situations.

A bill introduced in October 2023, coauthored by Sen. Rachael Cabral-Guevara (R-Appleton) and Rep. Nate Gustafson (R-Neenah), would loosen current restrictions on use of restraint in classrooms, allowing its use in situations that present “clear, present, and imminent risk of serious emotional distress for the pupil or others or creates a considerable disruption to a classroom or other learning environment.” 

It’s almost like that was the precedent that was set for him, which set the bar that everybody else is allowed to treat him badly because of a disability.

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– Mary Cerretti, a parent and advocacy specialist with Disability Rights Wisconsin

The bill alarmed families and advocates.

Becker said seclusion and restraint is already not being used in accordance with state law. “If we loosen those parameters, I’m fearful of what would happen. I’m fearful someone would get — I mean, people already do get hurt, but I’m fearful it would be a lot more people getting hurt.” 

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Spitzer-Resnick said the bill would create a loophole in restrictions on seclusion and restraint large enough that someone could drive “a Mack truck” through it. Streck said the bill conflicts with the reality of how a classroom works.

Cabral-Guevara and Gustafson declined to be interviewed for this story and pointed the Wisconsin Examiner back to a co-sponsorship memo explaining their bill.

In the memo, lawmakers wrote that the safety of kids and teachers could “be muddied by the gray area of overcomplicated regulation.” 

“When a classroom environment becomes unsafe, staff should be able to step in and de-escalate the situation so that students can get back to learning.” 

Streck’s son’s classroom that the seclusion room was attached to. She noted it’s bareness and that it had no windows. (Photo courtesy Stephanie Streck)

The proposal would reverse the progress that’s been made on the issue, advocates say. 

Disability Rights Wisconsin said in a statement that the proposal would increase the number of seclusions and restraints and would have a disproportionate impact on students with disabilities, with adverse, traumatic and even dangerous consequences. 

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The bill did not get a hearing this legislative session as lawmakers recently wrapped their work up for the year. However, advocates worry about the message it sends and whether it could come up again. 

“Who’s gonna bring it forward next time and in a way that maybe it can get passed?” asked Mary Cerretti with Disability Rights Wisconsin. “It just worries me that it seems acceptable to people.” 

Cerretti says she’s fearful because of her son’s experience. 

Her 26-year-old son, Kyle, experienced repeated seclusions and restraints as a kindergartener before there were any state laws on the issue in Wisconsin. She said at the time when she was advocating for her son in school that she didn’t consider what the long-term consequences might be. 

“It’s almost like that was the precedent that was set for him, which set the bar that everybody else is allowed to treat him badly because of a disability,” she said. “That’s where the source of his anger comes from.”

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Cerretti said they’ve had to work with mental health professionals to find ways to support him through his difficulties. She said the knowledge that there are state laws in place and that she works to help other students has been helpful for him.

“As a parent and as a parent advocate, I firmly believe that it’s 100% on the actions of the staff and them not meeting the needs of the children,” Cerretti said. “I think we need to [work on] that first and we won’t see these practices being used as much.”

A father brings a lawsuit to fight his daughter’s treatment

Joshua Rabel became concerned about the treatment of his daughter at her school in south Wisconsin during the fall of 2018-19 school year. His family received notes about his daughter, who has Down syndrome and autism, with details of frequent incidents in which she was restrained and secluded. Notes from the school shared with the Examiner described the incidents, including instances of her hitting, kicking and throwing objects.

Rabel said he didn’t understand why his daughter was getting so upset in school, but in many instances he felt staff members had taken actions that caused the disruptive behavior to escalate. For example, some situations described in the school notes included details about his daughter needing “physical assistance” with putting her head down.

“It was always the teachers saying, ‘Well, you’re not listening to me, head down’ — and they would force her head down onto a desk,” Rabel said. “That generally prompts a student who’s autistic to hit you. The teacher would then get all upset and be like, ‘Why are you hitting me?’”

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Rabel said conversations with the school’s director of special education at the time and other school leadership were unproductive. Suggestions from him and his daughter’s IEP team, including the idea that they bring in a behavioral therapist to assist with his daughter, were disregarded.

The special education director at the time told him, “We’re the experts. We don’t need your help,” Rabel said.

Rabel, a Marine veteran, said he came to feel his daughter was being “attacked,” and turned it into an “operation” to get her appropriate support in school. Several DPI complaints were filed against the school about her treatment in the 2018-19 school year, and Rabel eventually filed a lawsuit against the school district in 2021.

The lawsuit alleged that staff members failed to provide adequate support for his daughter and forcibly restrained her while she was in the sixth grade at least 74 times on at least 32 separate school days between Oct. 17, 2018 and May 30, 2019, and that only 27 of those incidents were reported. It also noted the police were called on her several times that year.

She was kicked out of the school in 2019 and started attending alternative programs.

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Rabel’s goal in the lawsuit was to get his daughter back into her local school with adequate support. The lawsuit was dismissed on the grounds that he had not exhausted other remedies available under federal law. But Rabel feels the lawsuit prompted the school to finally take action.

His daughter recently started back at the school full-time with behavioral therapists, and Rabel said she has “all the things that she needs to have a successful day.” Certain staff members involved in the seclusions and restraints no longer work with her and a new director of special education has been supportive.

“Had we simply gotten behavioral therapists and understood what to do and how to correct it, and to help [her] with intensive one-on-one therapy, it may not have happened,” Rabel said.

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Wisconsin

Tomahawk Public Library seeking community’s participation in Great Wisconsin Birdathon – Tomahawk Leader Newspaper

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Tomahawk Public Library seeking community’s participation in Great Wisconsin Birdathon – Tomahawk Leader Newspaper


For the Tomahawk Leader

TOMAHAWK – The Tomahawk Public Library (TPL) is asking the community to take part in the Great Wisconsin Birdathon.

This year’s Birdathon kicked off on Monday, April 15 and will run through Saturday, June 15.

The Natural Resources of Wisconsin Foundation said the Birdathon is the state’s largest fundraiser for bird conservation.

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“It’s like a walk-a-thon style fundraiser, but instead of logging miles, our participants are logging bird sightings,” the Foundation’s website says. “Each year, bird enthusiasts from across the state raise support and awareness for bird conservation by forming a team or donating to a team.”

Funds raised will go toward adding material to TPL’s collection that focuses on caring for and/or learning about birds and benefit the Foundation’s bird conservation projects .

Birdathon participants can birdwatch anywhere in Wisconsin and log their sightings at www.wisconservation.org/great-wisconsin-birdathon/.

To learn more about contribute to TPL’s efforts, visit www.tinyurl.com/4h83bmvf.

Photo courtesy of TPL.
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Wisconsin

Wisconsin Watch: Wisconsin voters with disabilities demand a better way to vote absentee

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Wisconsin Watch: Wisconsin voters with disabilities demand a better way to vote absentee


Don Natzke, 69, is seen in the backyard of his Shorewood, Wis., home on July 31, 2020. Natzke, who is blind, was unable to vote in Wisconsin’s April elections as the COVID-19 pandemic kept him from his in-person polling place and he was unable to fill out an absentee ballot. Photo by Will Cioci of Wisconsin Watch.

A new lawsuit seeks an electronic voting option so voters have a right to cast an absentee ballot privately and unassisted, but there are security risk concerns.

This article is republished from Wisconsin Watch.

When Stacy Ellingen, a 38-year-old Oshkosh resident with athetoid cerebral palsy, wants to cast a ballot, she relies on voting absentee because she can’t drive, and caregiver transportation to the polls is unreliable.

But even voting from her home is a struggle—and the process may well mean sacrificing her constitutional right to a secret ballot.

Unlike more than a dozen other states providing fully electronic absentee voting for people with disabilities, Wisconsin requires absentee voters to cast their votes on a paper ballot. Ellingen, a university graduate and small business owner, lacks the fine motor skills to fill out a paper ballot herself.

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She’s welcome to use help under current law, but Ellingen said she prefers not to have her caregivers assist because she usually feels uncomfortable sharing her political preferences with them. At times, she has turned to her parents, who live an hour away, for help filling out ballots, but they’re not always around.

Those obstacles have kept Ellingen from voting in some elections, she told Votebeat on Friday in a statement typed using an enlarged keyboard and an eye-gaze system. And she knows her obstacles under current law may only increase.

“Each election, a question always comes to mind: What’s going to happen when my parents are no longer here?” she said. “Will I be able to vote? I honestly don’t know. It’s a disheartening, but very real thought. Having to rely on my mom or dad for something I could easily do independently if given the appropriate accommodation is extremely frustrating!”

Ellingen is among four voters with disabilities who, along with Disability Rights Wisconsin and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, sued the Wisconsin Elections Commission on Tuesday to allow them to receive and return absentee ballots electronically, just as military and overseas voters in many other states do.

The lawsuit alleges that the state’s election system places undue burdens on the right to vote for Wisconsinites with disabilities. It also alleges that the state’s failure to provide accommodations within its absentee ballot system violates the Americans with Disabilities Act’s guarantees that people with disabilities have an equal opportunity to benefit from government services.

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Wisconsin Elections Commission spokesperson Riley Vetterkind declined to comment for this story.

The issue isn’t unique to Wisconsin. Nationwide, 1 in 7 voters with disabilities faced difficulties voting in 2022, compared with 1 in 9 in 2020, according to a Rutgers University and SSRS analysis. Americans with vision and cognitive disabilities were likeliest to face difficulties voting, the analysis found. And Americans with disabilities were far likelier than nondisabled Americans to run into difficulties voting, whether absentee or at the ballot box.

Push for accessible voting grew during the pandemic

The Wisconsin case is similar to several successful lawsuits filed across the country. Many of those cases came amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which raised hurdles for voters with disabilities, because many of them couldn’t or didn’t feel safe voting in person, and voting absentee required them to complete ballots they couldn’t fill out alone. According to the lawsuits, that eliminated their right to a secret ballot, something every state either guarantees in its constitution or references in state law.

“A lot of us who have mobility and the transportation and so forth could go to the polls if we didn’t like the way that absentee ballots were handled, but during the pandemic it became mission critical to have, in more jurisdictions … a way for us to mark ballots independently,” National Federation of the Blind spokesperson Chris Danielsen said.

At this point, 13 states allow voters with disabilities to electronically fill out and return absentee ballots, according to the National Federation of the Blind. Others, like Vermont, Michigan, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, allow voters with disabilities to fill out ballots electronically, though depending on the jurisdiction they have to print and return them by mail, drop box, or in person.

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Ellingen said the problem in Wisconsin was especially infuriating given that accessible technology exists elsewhere.

“For the life of me, I don’t understand why this isn’t an option for everyone, but it should be at least available as an accommodation for those who are unable to cast a ballot independently,” she said.

Voters with disabilities, especially those who are blind or have low vision, have for years lobbied for more accessible absentee voting. But they have often faced pushback over the security of receiving, casting, and returning ballots electronically. Governmental election security experts say that sending digital copies of ballots to voters is safe, and that filling them out electronically is somewhat safe, but that returning them electronically adds significant security risks.

Still, filling and returning absentee ballots electronically is the gold standard for many people with disabilities, including blind and low-vision voters, Danielsen said. Allowing voters with disabilities to fill out a ballot electronically and return it by mail is a step in the right direction, but it’s inconvenient for people without printers, he said.

Lawsuit alleges “incomplete framework” for protecting right to vote

The Wisconsin lawsuit acknowledges that federal and state laws provide some accommodations for voters with disabilities, but they “focus on assistance to the detriment of independence,” which “forces voters to give up their constitutional right to a secret ballot.”

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State law previously allowed clerks to send absentee ballots over email and fax to any eligible Wisconsin voter. In theory, the measure allowed voters with disabilities to mark ballots electronically using a screen reader, a 2023 report by the Wisconsin Elections Commission stated.

But Denise Jess, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired, said she never knew about or used the method. Don Natzke, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who’s blind, said the same.

“When you end up having a policy or opportunity out there that isn’t made available to people or knowledge brought to their attention, it sort of rings hollow,” Natzke said.

In any case, that option was taken away in 2011, when then-Gov. Scott Walker signed a bipartisan bill restricting electronic absentee voting only to military and overseas voters. A federal appeals court upheld the law in 2020, eliminating the ability for voters with disabilities to independently fill out an absentee ballot, the Wisconsin Elections Commission report stated.

“Voters with blindness or low vision still do not have an accessible absentee ballot or certificate
envelope that can be marked independently,” that WEC report stated.

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Natzke said he witnessed firsthand the lack of accessibility for people with disabilities.

Natzke, a Shorewood resident who has been blind since he was 12, said he has tried to vote in person in every election since the 1970s, but the COVID-19 disrupted that routine. Dealing with high blood pressure and concerned that his age made him more vulnerable to the virus, he instead opted for an absentee ballot in 2020.

Using a paper ballot in that spring election, Natzke held a phone in one hand to scan the text while trying to figure out with a remote helper where he should mark the ballot. He couldn’t ask his wife to guide him, because she is also blind.

The process, he told Votebeat, “became absolutely infeasible, and it wasn’t something that could possibly work out, so I abandoned it. And then because of the restrictions, not wanting to be exposed to the virus, I didn’t actually end up being able to vote for that election.”

Even if he had somebody to assist him in person with voting, it would have presented a COVID-19 health risk and compromised the privacy of his vote, he said.

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The lawsuit asks the Dane County Circuit Court to allow voters with disabilities to electronically receive, mark, and return absentee ballots. A federal appeals court in 2020 upheld the law restricting who can receive ballots electronically, but the case wasn’t brought by Wisconsinites with disabilities and didn’t contain the same claims as the lawsuit filed on Tuesday, the complaint states.

The plaintiffs aren’t asking the court “to develop and engineer a revolutionary method of accessible absentee voting,” the complaint states. “Enfranchising Wisconsin’s print disabled voters … is simply a question of implementing existing solutions.”

Thirty-one states, along with the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, allow military and overseas voters to receive, cast, and return ballots electronically, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. At least a dozen of those states extend the same voting method to people with disabilities.

Lawmakers raise concerns over security of electronic absentee voting

Jess, who called the inability to vote absentee in an accessible way a “compromise of basic human dignity,” said she received pushback when she urged Wisconsin lawmakers to allow for electronic voting.

Specifically, she said, the lawmakers raised fears that transmitting and returning ballots digitally could allow somebody to tamper with them.

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Jess mentioned to lawmakers the less risky option of receiving and casting ballots electronically and then printing and returning the physical ballot, but she said, “there’s not even an openness to that.”

The Legislature’s two election committee chairs, Rep. Scott Krug, R-Nekoosa, and Sen. Dan Knodl, R-Germantown, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Federal agencies have also raised concerns over the security of electronically delivering, marking and, especially, returning ballots.

There are “effective risk management controls” to enable electronic ballot delivery and casting, but returning ballots electronically is “high-risk even with controls in place,” states a report by several federal agencies, including the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the Election Assistance Commission.

The risks of returning ballots electronically can affect an election’s results and occur at scale, the report found. It further stated that securing ballot return digitally while guaranteeing voter privacy and ballot integrity is “difficult, if not impossible, at this time.”

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But if election officials choose or are mandated to allow electronic ballot returns, they should allow voters returning ballots electronically to check their ballots’ status, the agencies stated. They recommended that its use be limited to voters who can’t vote any other way.

Voters with disabilities fit the category of people who have no other means to return their ballots privately and independently, said Eileen Newcomer, voter education manager at the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin. While there may be security risks, Newcomer said the risk of voters’ being disenfranchised must also be addressed.

Despite warnings about the risks of electronic voting, there have been no instances of widespread electronic voter fraud or high-profile prosecutions of people alleged to have tampered with the electronic system that voters with disabilities use.

Voters with disabilities would have to understand the risks of returning ballots electronically if the lawsuit is successful, Disability Rights Wisconsin public policy manager Lisa Hassenstab said. But she said the organization didn’t want to budge on its request for electronic ballot return, because the alternative — printing and returning physical ballots — could sacrifice voters’ ability to vote privately and independently.

She also said current fears about security risks will soon be overcome by better technology.

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Between August 2021 and September 2022, the University of California, Berkeley, hosted a working group of election, technology, and cybersecurity experts to discuss the feasibility of creating standards to enable safe and secure electronic marking and return technologies.

The group found that widespread adoption of electronic return requires technologies that don’t currently exist or haven’t been tested.

The group pointed out six particular concerns that could threaten election security: client-side malware; the potential for people to hack voters’ computers; a targeted denial-of-service attack; the difficulty in verifying voters’ identities; the absence of a physical ballot that voters can verify; and the possibility that a small group of people could alter votes in bulk.

While the group cautioned against electronic return technology, it said eliminating that path for voting without reasonable alternatives could “produce an unacceptable risk to those with accessibility needs and would place election officials” at risk of violating federal laws like the Help America Vote Act and the ADA, the group stated. The group advocated for the research and development of technologies to improve accessibility.

Natzke said electronic voting would remove a barrier for voters with disabilities just as curb cuts in raised sidewalks made streets more accessible. “We need to have that curb cut because we know it can work,” he said

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“To not do that, when you know that it’s there, makes a statement, because it’s been done elsewhere,” he said. “So when there’s a choice to then not do it, it ends up really concerning me in terms of the position people with disabilities hold in the hands of our policymakers.”

This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan news organization covering local election administration and voting access. Sign up for Votebeat’s free newsletters here.

This story was produced as part of the NEW (Northeast Wisconsin) News Lab, a consortium of six news outlets.




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Penn State Softball Takes Two Of Three Against Wisconsin

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Penn State Softball Takes Two Of Three Against Wisconsin


Penn State softball (32-12, 11-6 Big Ten) battled against Wisconsin (17-26, 6-11 Big Ten) in a three-game series, where the Nittany Lions came out with another Big Ten series win. Bridget Nemeth started in the circle twice and won both games.

Game One

Freshman Bridget Nemeth got the start on the mound to start the series for the Nittany Lions. The first inning remained scoreless for both teams. With no outs on the board, Gaby Garcia hammered the ball over the left center-field wall to get things going for Penn State, 1-0.

Nemeth shined through the second inning, throwing five strikeouts and keeping Penn State in the lead.

At the top of the third, Maddie Gordon stepped up to the plate and hit a single to the short-stop, which got her to first base. Kaitlyn Morrison entered the box and put away a triple, getting Gordon all the way home. Garcia stepped back up to the plate after her homerun and hit a single down the left field line, getting Morrison home. The score was then 3-0 in favor of Penn State.

Nemeth and the defense didn’t allow a run from the Badgers until a double in the bottom of the sixth, giving Wisconsin their only run of the day. Garcia went three-for-three on the day, with an RBI and a dinger.

Penn State took the first game of the series 3-1.

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Game Two

Looking to take the series, Mady Volpe got the start on the mound for the Nittany Lions.

After two scoreless innings for both squads, Wisconsin exploded after a double sent the Badgers on base home to make the score 2-0. The Badgers continued their early campaign and scored again, 4-0.

At the top of the third, Jiselle Hernandez slammed the ball over the fence for her first collegiate home run.

After a walk, Penn State’s offense added a pair of runs at the top of the third.

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Midway through the third, Wisconsin added third more runs, making the score 7-2.

At the bottom of the fourth, Wisconsin hammered a home run and a double, taking their revenge for their loss yesterday, 10-2. Despite a solo home run in the fifth by Garcia, the Nittany Lions allowed the Badgers to walk all over them, the final score being 17-3.

Game Three

With a series on the line, Penn State started Nemeth on the mound.

At the top of the first, Morrison on the first pitch hit a single to get the game started. With Morrison on first base, Gordon slammed a dinger to left field, sending Gordon around, making the score 2-0.

To end the first, Wisconsin scored on an RBI double to make the score 2-1.

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With a player on third base, Haylie Brunson hit an RBI double, adding a run to the scoreboard. With strong defensive plays and solid pitching, the Nittany Lions keep the Badgers from scoring.

In the top of the sixth, Brunson solos a home run with one out, making the score 4-1.

With only two outs and bases loaded, Liana Jones hits a grand slam, extending the lead to 9-1.

Wisconsin managed to tally a run at the bottom of the sixth to avoid an early ending to the game. At the top of the seventh, Hernadez’s hit barely stayed fair to add another run for Penn State. To end the game, Nemeth struck out the Badgers, earning her 25th win as a freshman.

What’s Next?

Penn State will host Saint Francis at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, April 23, for faculty and staff appreciation night at the Nittany Lion Softball Park and Beard Field.

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Alex is a first-year Journalism major from Tampa, Florida. If you want to debate any sport (including pickleball), she’s your girl. Her email is [email protected]!





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