Controversy Over Use of Seclusion and Restraints Grows

Experts in special needs education are growing alarmed at the increasing usage of disciplinary measures like physical restraints and seclusion in schools to address student misbehavior. Bill Lichtenstein, writing for The New York Times, draws on his own experience as a father to a developmentally-delayed daughter to figure out why the schools feel that they must increasingly rely on such methods to maintain order in their schools.

According to a report from the Department of Education, nearly 40,000 students were subject to restraints or seclusion during the 2009-2010 academic year, with African-American and Hispanic children making up a disproportionally large number of those students. Lichtenstein’s own 5-year-old daughter was one; her teachers put her in a seclusion room daily for at least an hour for three months before he and his wife intervened and stopped the practice. Although this happened several years ago, Lichtenstein writes that his daughter is still dealing with the trauma from the experience.

Joseph Ryan, an expert on the use of restraints who teaches at Clemson University, told me that the practice of isolating and restraining problematic children originated in schools for children with special needs. It migrated to public schools in the 1970s as federal laws mainstreamed special education students, but without the necessary oversight or staff training. “It’s a quick way to respond but it’s not effective in changing behaviors,” he said

Part of the problem lies in the fact that the hodgepodge of state laws dealing with these disciplinary techniques make tracking them difficult. There’s no federal law that deals with the practice, although earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan release a memo saying that they haven’t been shown to be effective in fixing discipline problems. Instead, he encouraged teachers and administrators to attempt a more evidence-based approach to behavior correction.

Jessica Butler, a Washington-area lawyer who has written about the issue before, says that seclusion and restraints should be both be considered the approach of last resort, but many schools suffering budget cuts and staffing shortages are more apt to use these techniques in cases that either don’t warrant them or where an alternative time-intensive approach would be just as effective.

Among the recent instances that have attracted attention: Children in Middletown, Conn., told their parents that there was a “scream room” in their school where they could hear other children who had been locked away; last December, Sandra Baker of Harrodsburg, Ky., found her fourth-grade son, Christopher, who had misbehaved, stuffed inside a duffel bag, its drawstrings pulled tight, and left outside his classroom. He was “thrown in the hall like trash,” she told me