Practice of Restraining, Secluding Students Faces Growing Opposition


A state report released last week found that public schools are restraining or isolating children against their will at a surprising rate, and hundreds of students have been left with injuries and unmet educational needs.

Children with emotional or intellectual disabilities in particular have been targeted, according to Annie Waldman of ProPublica. Over 90,000 instances of restraint and seclusion have been recorded in the past three years generating more than 1,300 injuries, with at least two dozen of them doing serious damage. One child was restrained more than 700 times during one school year.

 “The numbers are staggering,” Mickey Kramer, the Associate Child Advocate for Connecticut and one of the authors of the report, told ProPublica. “We realize that this is a pervasive, widespread problem.”

The study explored the cases of 70 students, one of whom, a 9-year-old with autism, was placed in seclusion after he refused to say “hello” to a visitor. Another was a 4-year-old with developmental issues who was restrained after throwing puzzle pieces. A fourth-grader with autism was secluded behind closed doors despite having suicidal tendencies.

A ProPublic/NPR investigation last year based on government data showed up to 267,000 incidents across the country in one school year. Several of the country’s largest districts do not require a report of the actual number of restraints even though the reporting is mandated by law, so the number is likely to be higher than has been recorded. At least 20 children have died as a result of being restrained.

In 2012, Connecticut lawmakers required schools to record and report each instance of restraint and seclusion, but the report last week by Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate found that many schools are not complying. The report continued by stating that the state Department of Education does not have enough resources to adequately document schools’ compliance.

Another critical matter that was brought to light through the state report is the conditions of the spaces used for seclusion. Often the areas are storage or utility closets or other “cell-like” venues.

“We are grateful for the Child Advocate’s attention to this issue,” said Kelly Donnelly, spokeswoman for Connecticut’s State Department of Education. “We share the Child Advocate’s concerns and would like to see the numbers reduced, as well.”

Experts say that binding children or isolating them does not help manage a child’s behavior, especially those with special needs. In fact, they can be traumatic and cause further behavioral challenges. The report contained 14 recommendations to schools including increased staff training, monthly school-wide reviews of restraint data, the limitation of mechanical restraints, and the prohibition of prone or face-down restraint techniques.

Some lawmakers are taking notice. A bill introduced by Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) proposes the restriction  of the use of physical restraint or seclusion in schools to punish students for bad behavior, writes Cristina Marcos of The Hill.

“It is our responsibility to make sure all children are safe and protected at school. Too often dangerous and abusive techniques are used to discipline our students, disproportionately subjecting minority and disabled students to inappropriate seclusion and restraint in the classroom,” Beyer said in a statement. 

Sam Maloney, who lives in New York, has autism and, beginning when he was 6-years-old, his teachers at Greece Central School District dealt with his destructive physical and emotional outbursts by pinning him to the floor and then taking him to a “quiet room” to scream himself into exhaustion. In the ensuing years, Sam, who is now 14, with the help of his mom has created an online photography business, is a boy scout, and is the school photographer for Athena High School. During this same time he has also bounced through many different schools and continued to be restrained and taken to seclusion against his mother’s wishes, reports Meaghan M. McDermott, writing for the Democrat & Chronicle. Sam’s mom has been keeping him out of school since September.

“There is no justification for seclusion. It is akin to solitary confinement and has a similar effect on students,” said Barbara M. Trader, executive director of TASH, a Washington, D.C.-based international advocacy group for people with disabilities.

“Developing a ‘trauma-informed’ culture is also important, where school personnel understand the impact of trauma on students and realize that re-traumatizing students through the use of harsh disciplinary techniques is not productive.”

What is needed, says Trader, is the positive engagement of students, along with effective and compelling classroom instruction that rewards good behavior.

Carson Luke, a ten-year-old, was locked in a seclusion room in March of 2011, according to the Inquisitr. When his teacher slammed the door to the room, the heavy metal door crushed Carson’s hand. Since then his family has been on the forefront of the movement to do away with restraint methods and seclusion rooms, even while some school administrators say these practices are necessary. Dan Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, explains:

“It is used when a child is acting out in a way, for example, where they are in the process of clawing their eyes out, or tearing their hair out, or smashing their head up against the wall. And they need to be restrained so they can be stopped from hurting themselves. Or when a child will attack another child. Or when a child will attack a member of the staff.”

Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary of education in the Office for Civil Rights, disagrees, and adds that such punishments leave children feeling they are not valuable — so invaluable, in fact, that children feel educators are not even trying to educate them.

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