Sept. 16, 2014, PNLR E-newsletter
Two schools cited for unnecessary restraint, seclusion of children
Courtney L. Davenport
Two Virginia schools for students with emotional and behavioral issues restrained or secluded students hundreds of times in nonemergency situations, the Department of Education recently found. A ProPublica analysis released in June found that children were held down, handcuffed, duct-taped, locked in dark rooms, and otherwise restrained more than 267,000 times in the 2012 school year.
Two Virginia schools for students with emotional and behavioral issues restrained or secluded students hundreds of times in nonemergency situations, the Department of Education (DOE) recently found. A ProPublica analysis released in June found that children were held down, handcuffed, duct-taped, locked in dark rooms, and otherwise restrained more than 267,000 times in the 2012 school year.
For decades, many schools have used seclusion and restraints—which the Government Accountability Office (GAO) defines as physical or mechanical devices, materials, or equipment to limit movement—to control students. Safety advocates argue the techniques should be used only in emergency situations when children pose a danger to themselves or others and other methods have failed, and only as long as it takes for the danger to subside. But multiple studies and reports have concluded that some teachers are using the techniques indiscriminately—and sometimes fatally.
In 2009, the GAO found hundreds of cases of alleged abuse or death between 1990 and 2009 and reports of tens of thousands of children restrained or secluded each school year. At least 20 children died during that time frame while restrained, including a 14-year-old foster child who refused to sit in his chair when the school withheld his lunch as punishment. His teacher, who outweighed him by 100 pounds, rolled him face down on the ground and sat on his back, as he repeatedly screamed that he couldn’t breathe and said, “I give.” When the boy went limp, the teacher and another staff member thought he was “playing possum” until they realized he wasn’t breathing. In another case, a 15-year-old boy who had been diagnosed with autism died after three school staff members, including an assistant principal, held him face down with his arms behind his back for an hour after he had a seizure in class and then started flailing his arms.
For every student who dies, thousands are abused in the classroom, especially children with disabilities. Peter Alfert of Walnut Creek, Calif., recently represented the families of four five- and six-year-olds diagnosed with autism whose teacher, Theresa Allen-Caulboy, frequently held them on the ground with her knee, pinched and struck them, and yelled at them using derogatory words. Many of the children were nonverbal, so they couldn’t tell their parents what was happening, but their behavior changed dramatically. Staff at the school knew about Allen-Caulboy’s behavior for at least three months before taking any action. The school system settled earlier this year for $8 million. (Evans v. Antioch Unified Sch. Dist., No. 3:13-cv-01476 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 19, 2014).)
“It’s pretty widespread for restraints to be used for more than the purpose they are supposed to be used for. It seems like a lot of cases involve restraints or abusive techniques just to get compliance with whatever they are asking the child to do,” said Alfert. “Schools are very bad in general at following mandated reporter laws. They tend to want to do their own investigation, determine nothing happened, and then not report it to police to investigate what occurred. That’s a thread running through most of my cases.”
The ProPublica analysis found 163,000 incidents in which children were restrained, including by handcuffs, straps, or duct tape. Another 104,000 children were placed in what are often called “scream rooms”—isolated rooms that lock from the outside—often for several hours. Secluded children sometimes injure themselves by throwing themselves against the walls, and at least one child committed suicide while staff stood outside the door.
The two schools at the center of the DOE investigation, the Positive Attitude and Commitment to Education (PACE) West and East schools, educate students with serious emotional and behavioral issues. The agency investigated because a mother complained that her son, M.C., was regularly isolated in the seclusion room for up to four hours for infractions such as not following directions, throwing his breakfast in the trash, and being disrespectful to teachers.
Although school policy dictated that restraints or seclusion in a padded room be used only for aggressive or violent behavior, the DOE found that both schools routinely used the techniques for behaviors as minor as disturbing the class. At PACE West, 60 children—40 percent of the students—were restrained or secluded 219 times in the 2011-2012 school year. PACE East had similar numbers for that time frame, but in the first six months of the following school year, 31 students were restrained or secluded 154 times. The schools often did not notify parents when they used the techniques. The DOE implemented several reporting and monitoring provisions.
“PACE was specifically created to educate and serve students like M.C., yet PACE documented no efforts to determine what interventions would have been the most effective for M.C. and when they were to be used,” said the mother’s complaint. “Instead, PACE repeatedly used seclusion and aggressive restraint practices of a nature and frequency suggesting arbitrariness, recklessness, and lack of concern for the potential impact of these interventions in escalating his behavioral difficulties and denying him classroom educational and social benefits.”
Advocates say these cases highlight a serious gap in child-safety regulation: There is no federal law governing use of restraints or seclusion in schools, and many states have left it to individual school systems to create their own policies. According to Jessica Butler, an advocate on disability issues, only 19 states have meaningful protections against restraint and seclusion for all children, with 32 states regulating their use for students with disabilities. Only 21 states forbid restraints that impede breathing and are life-threatening for all children, with 28 states regulating their use for children with disabilities. Further, only 14 states and 11 states, respectively, restrict restraint use or seclusion to emergency situations with the potential for physical danger. Slightly more states do so for children with disabilities.
“One reason the use of restraint and seclusion is widespread is that America lacks a strong federal law. Each year, some states pass stronger laws, and each year, bills fail in other states. And so we have a patchwork quilt covering America—good laws, weak laws, incomplete laws, and in some places, absolute silence,” Butler said. She noted that many states don’t require schools to inform parents. “When practices like this are hidden, they are used much more. Without strong laws, we will never stop the use of restraint and seclusion in schools.”