It’s Time to Make Sure Our Kids Are No Longer Bound, Shackled, or Locked Away When They’re at School

In 1998, teachers in West Virginia strapped a 4-year-old autistic girl with cerebral palsy to a wooden chair. Why? She was being “uncooperative” because she needed to use the bathroom. The girl suffered bruises and was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In 2003, school officials in Michigan held a 15-year-old autistic boy in a face-down restraint for an hour after he had a seizure and lost control of his extremities. He died without receiving medical attention.

These are just two of many barbaric stories from a 2009 Government Accountability Office report on the use of restraint and seclusion in schools. “Restraint” involves using physical, mechanical, or chemical means to restrict a child’s ability to move their arms, legs, head, or body; and “seclusion” is the involuntarily confining of a child alone.

In collecting hundreds of stories, the GAO report found that children with disabilities were most likely to face abusive or even fatal use of restraint and seclusion. Moreover, it found that there were no federal laws or regulations restricting the use of seclusion and restraints in public and private schools as well as widely divergent state laws. Similar reports from the National Disability Rights Network highlighted the harms of restraint and seclusion and urged the federal government and Congress to take action.

Yet in the last decade, not much has changed. Horrific uses of restraint and seclusion continue to emerge.

Max Benson, a 13-year-old autistic boy, died after being forced into a face-down restraint for an extended period of time. Gigi Daniel-Zagorites, a teenager with a genetic condition that makes speaking difficult, was barricaded behind a bookcase and cabinet. Alex Campbell, an autistic teenager, turned into an advocate for federal action against restraint and seclusion after he was trapped in a converted storage closet on multiple occasions.

But despite the long history and continued use of these practices, there is still no federal law setting national standards for the use of seclusion or restraint.

Additionally, restraint and seclusion are still disproportionately used on students with disabilities and students of color. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s 2015-16 Civil Rights Data Collection, while students with disabilities made up 12 percent of enrolled students, they made up 66 percent of students subject to seclusion and 71 percent of students restrained. Additionally, while Black students make up 15 percent of all students, they made up 23 percent of students secluded and 27 percent of students restrained.

Continued inaction is not an option.

Students with disabilities and students of color continue to suffer short- and long-term psychological harm, even physical injury or death. Furthermore, the practices serve to push them out of the general education classroom, drastically reducing chances for success later in life. At last count, 122,000 students were restrained in one school year. Thirty-six thousand were locked up in small rooms — some of them the size of coffins — and left there.

But Congress can make significant progress this year. On Wednesday, the House Committee on Education and Labor will hold a subcommittee hearing on the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint. Soon after, Congress may consider specific legislation to create national standards to protect students from inappropriate restraint and prohibit the use of seclusion altogether.

This legislation, the Keeping All Students Safe Act, was first introduced in 2009 and passed the House of Representatives, but never received a vote in the Senate. In recent years, the bill has been improved, but it has not advanced in either chamber of Congress.

The Keeping All Students Safe Act features a number of crucial protections, including:

  • Prohibiting the use of seclusion and both mechanical and chemical restraints
  • Prohibiting physical restraint or physical escort that is life threatening, that restricts breathing, that would specifically harm a student based on their disability or health care needs, or any other form of behavior intervention designed to inflict pain (also known as “aversive interventions”)
  • Prohibiting the inclusion of physical restraint in a student’s individualized education plan
  • Requiring states to ensure a sufficient number of school personnel are trained and certified in crisis intervention

The legislation also includes important reporting and notification requirements, and it establishes a system of competitive grants to assist states in meeting minimum standards.

The Department of Education recently announced an initiative to address the inappropriate use of restraint and seclusion, working directly with schools to provide technical assistance. This initiative is welcome, but it is not enough. Congress must take action to put these critical protections into law. Schools should be doing all they can to integrate students with disabilities and students of color into the classroom, not punish them with draconian and life-threatening practices.

Every day that Congress waits another child is manhandled, traumatized, and pushed away from school and potentially into the damaging and dangerous school to prison pipeline. The Keeping All Students Safe Act will protect all of our children, and help make school a place to learn, not a place to fear. 

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Ms. Gloria Anasyrma

Exactly, what are teachers supposed to do when a kid starts spazzing out? Give them Seconal?

Anonymous

Why are they "spazzing out"? Do they have a medical condition? Are they having a seizure? Are they in distress? Also, who uses Seconal?

Ms. Gloria Anasyrma

You need Seconal if you are answering my comments.

Anonymous

The ACLU only cares when they can make money from lawsuits. The teachers can't sue and neither can the victims of violent, special-needs, kids.

Anonymous

The use of such restraints and seclusion is a form of imprisonment and a school should have no right to use them. The ONLY possible exception I can see would be in an emergency where a student is actively placing people in imminent danger. For example, if a student who has the physical strength and capability to cause serious injury to others actively physically attacks someone then I can see temporary minimal restraints being used to ensure no loss of life or limb. Such restraints should be reasonable and minimal (no Handcuffs on a four year old, for example). This is not what most of these cases, are though. And, such measures should not be used when a student can’t actually cause physics harm.

There is a need to be able to deal with students who are asaaulting others physically in a way that can or will cause harm. And in some cases emergency restraint may be necessary to halt self harm until emergency personnel and/or parents can arrive and take over. But that’s the only time this could be appropriate. And a coffin sized holding room is never appropriate. Ever.

(On reflection: there might be appropriate times to restrain students who are committing other criminal acts such as significant property destruction, as well. Again, the age and size and level of restraint as well as disability should be appropriately considered.)

Anonymous

This is a “symptom” of America’s total defeat in the “War On A Tactic” after 9/11. The enemy supposedly spent about $100,000 in 2001. American responded by destroying our own Bill of Rights and over 200 years of American government. We nearly bankrupted the U.S. Treadury with record debt and deficits. With federal “Preemption Grants” deputizing state and local government, America is officially a police state. We now have a “Stasi” or secret police. It’s the Wild West of lawlessness! This is just a symptom of us surrendering our values after 9/11.

Anonymous

What people don't understand is daily special needs teachers are being hit, kicked, punched, bit and scratched by special needs students. That is not to say that they should be put in a coffin like room or held so they can't breathe but sometimes students need to be restrained so that they do not hurt others. Completely understand the need for protecting our children but we also need to protect the people who work with our children who are being injured and it seems to be okay for that to happen to the teachers within the special needs culture.

Anonymous

I agreed, and hope the ACLU pushestgis fight forward. Too many states do not have disability protections for students, they simply revert to IDEA, which is outdated.

Anonymous

When I was younger, I worked in emergency admission psych units (adult) and seclusion and restraint were sometimes necessary and appropriate. I also worked in a large group home for emotionally disturbed 10 - 17 year-olds where there was no seclusion and restraint was less frequent. I was one of the more skilled and stronger staff members, so I was frequently called on to be one of the restrainers and one of those that took adults to seclusion. There was significant training provided. Then I became an early elementary teacher for 25 years. There wasn't much need, but it was regular classroom, not Special Ed. I can't remember any times when I thought these interventions were abused nor over-used, but I see the potential.

Anonymous

What about the other children? Why should a whole class room of children be traumatized by a classmate who hits, punches, bites, kicks, throws objects at them, sexually assaults them, and/or breaks their property? The other children deserve a safe, calm, school environment, too.

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