These inhumane discipline practices are still legal in U.S. schools

Jun 27, 2014 at 3:45 p.m. ET
Image: Leren Lu/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Restraint and seclusion have killed more than 20 students and injured and traumatized tens of thousands of others. Why are schools still torturing kids in the name of discipline?

Kari Wagner-Peck happened to arrive at school early one day to pick up her 2-year-old son, who has Down syndrome and could neither speak nor walk. Hearing horrifying screams coming from behind a closed door, she opened it to discover her son, strapped into a "therapeutic" chair, red-faced and covered in sweat, screaming while his speech therapist calmly read to him.

The therapist's explanation? She had to strap him in because otherwise he would try to get away.

Wagner-Peck reported the incident but "nothing happened," she says. "It was chalked up to inexperience."

This prehistoric-sounding method of discipline used in public schools is called restraint and seclusion, and only 19 states have any meaningful protections for the use of seclusion or restraint in schools.

Proposed law offers hope

To prevent these practices, Senators Tom Harkin and Chris Murphy have introduced the Keeping All Students Safe Act in the Senate (S. 2036), and Representatives George Miller and Gregg Harper have introduced the House bill (H.R. 1893).

Restraint and seclusion have killed more than 20 students and injured and traumatized tens of thousands of other students, according to a Congressional agency report. At least 70,000 students were subjected to physical restraint, 37,000, to isolated seclusion and nearly 4,000 to mechanical restraint, for a near total of 111,000 in 2011 to 2012.

"Research shows that such methods — which include forced immobilization, sensory deprivation and physical harm — are more akin to torture and can be harmful to a child's cognitive, social and emotional development," reports nonprofit Stop Hurting Kids.

As the parent of a nonverbal toddler with Down syndrome, I've spent two days researching and recoiling in horror at experiences parents have shared where restraint and seclusion were used to discipline their children.

"Crying, all red, soaked with sweat"

Sandra Savage's first-grader had a history of hiding under a table at school and refusing to come out, pretending to growl like a tiger at whoever tried to coax him out. Savage later learned her son had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). At the time, it was undiagnosed.

"One day I got a call [from the school] and they said they had him in a room and that I had to hurry up and come get him," she remembers.

Savage rushed to the school and was led to a room where she found four adults and her son. "The male gym teacher was on the floor, back to the wall, holding my son in a complete full-body lock. My son was crying, all red, soaked with sweat and still fighting to get loose. The school nurse was there watching and making sure that he was medically OK while they waited for me.

"I was so angry. I said, 'Let him go.' and the gym teacher said he could not because [my son] was out of control. I yelled, 'Let him go!' and he did. And my son scrambled under a table in the room and cried even harder.

"I coaxed him into my arms, consoled him until he calmed down and then took him home."

Federal law is critical

The Keeping All Students Safe Act is imperative because parenthood doesn't come with a handbook on what to do if you discover your child has been abused. Childhood doesn't come with a fairy godmother to keep a child safe from the very people he or she should trust the most.

Savage, like so many parents, didn't know what to do after finding her son pinned to the ground by a teacher. "I really had no experience with kids with special needs or any of the topics we parents of kids with special needs are so apprised of, so I never saw that day coming. [I] didn't really know what to do about it other than to say that I never wanted them to do that to my son again."

Locked in a closet, naked and alone

Five-year-old Rose stood naked in a dimly-lit closet and in a pool of her own urine. It was 2006, and she was not in some underdeveloped country. She was where children should feel safe — her elementary school in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Rose's teachers had locked her in the tiny room five times that day for behavior issues, the girl's father, Bill Lichtenstein, learned.

Few parents have national platforms from which to decry such abuse. But Lichtenstein does, and he began investigating the use of restraint and seclusion across the U.S. The result was an award-winning article in the New York Times.

"[Rose] said that during the last confinement, she needed to use the restroom but didn’t want to wet her outfit. So she disrobed," he wrote in 2012. "Rather than help her, the school called us and then covered the narrow door’s small window with a file folder, on which someone had written 'Don’t touch!'

"We were told that Rose had been in the closet almost daily for three months, for up to an hour at a time. At first, it was for behavior issues, but later for not following directions. Once in the closet, Rose would pound on the door, or scream for help, staff members said, and once her hand was slammed in the doorjamb while being locked inside."

Here are some resources that have helped other parents:

The statistics are shocking

Lichtenstein's work dipped restraint and seclusion practices into the national spotlight and earned him the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But shocking statistics persist. According to the Committee on Education and the Workforce, Democrats:

  • Only 19 states have any meaningful protections for the use of seclusion or restraint in schools.
  • Only 20 states prohibit restraints that restrict breathing.
  • Only 13 states limit the use of restraint to emergencies involving immediate risk of harm.
  • Only 15 states ban the use of mechanical restraints.
  • Only 14 states prohibit chemical restraints.
  • Only 30 states have any requirement that parents be notified if their child was restrained or secluded at school.

"In the words of Congressman George Miller, the lack of state and local rules on this mistreatment of our kids is like 'the Wild West,'" Lichtenstein says. "Meanwhile children are being hurt. Children are dying. The federal Keeping All Students Safe Act will put an end to this dangerous situation in schools.

"But if it's going to pass this session, people must call or write their U.S. senators and congressperson now and let them know how they feel about this critical issue."

Can this happen to any student?

"Without comprehensive safeguards against restraint and seclusion, every student is at risk of being subjected to these dangerous practices," reports Stop Hurting Kids. "But these practices are disproportionately used on students with disabilities and students of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds."

In 2012, the Department of Education reported:

  • Though students with disabilities make up one out of every eight students, they comprise nearly 70 percent of physical restraint incidents in schools.
  • African American students account for just 21 percent of all students with disabilities, though they represent 44 percent of instances of mechanical restraint in schools.
  • While Hispanic students represent 24 percent of students without disabilities, they are a full 42 percent of students without disabilities who are subject to seclusion.

Down syndrome community urges action

The National Down Syndrome Congress (NDSC) is actively advocating for the legislation's passage and urging families to speak out.

NDSC executive director David Tolleson dismisses an argument against the proposed federal law. "Some lawmakers say that a law forbidding the use of restraint, seclusion and aversive intervention on children with disabilities in public schools would be unnecessary federal interference in local education decisions. I disagree.

"This is a civil rights issue, not an education issue. If you used any other adjective to describe the student (male, female, gay, straight, Christian, Jewish, etc.), this sort of treatment would be illegal.

"However, because it's children with disabilities, it’s OK? I don’t think so. This is wrong and it has to be stopped."

Earlier this week, the APRAIS coalition, of which NDSC is a founding member, TASH, the ACLU and the Congressional Black Caucus Education and Labor Taskforce sponsored a congressional briefing on restraint and seclusion. The group viewed the movie, Restraint and Seclusion: Hear Our Stories.

What can I do to support the Keeping All Students Safe Act?

  • Call 202-224-3121 or email your senators and representatives and urge them to co-sponsor the Keeping All Students Safe Act (S. 2036 and H.R. 1893). Leave a voicemail if no one answers.
  • Leverage social media with the hashtag #stopRS.

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