An updated look at abuse in schools and long overdue legislation that could help end it.
Thirteen years ago my goal was to leave the world of advertising to be a mother, but more importantly, my child’s teacher. While my parents taught me to always stand up for the weakest person in the room, my plan was to take it further by teaching my child how to fight for balance in the world, to seek out and find solutions for the underprivileged, the sick, and the disabled. I had visions in my head of what my teaching room would look like—an entire space dedicated to different cultures, diverse views, and copious examples of compassionate souls who put the value of human life before personal lifestyle. The plan was clear in my head… but you know what they say about making plans.
I had a beautiful baby boy who instead needed to re-learn how to make eye contact, understand words, and speak. He was so severely affected that even therapists turned us away—one going so far as to gesture to my son while saying, “I have nothing to work with.” Instead of a diverse teaching room, I turned our would-be dining room into a makeshift occupational therapy space so my son could learn to stay upright, climb, jump, and grasp a wooden spoon to tap on a pan. But the one thing I couldn’t teach him was the thing he needed most—social interaction. Despite my vow to be my child’s teacher, we sent him off to an inclusive daycare environment at the tender age of 18 months.
It was during this time when I got to see humanity at its best. While my nonverbal child with no receptive language belted out sobbing screams from his classroom day in and day out, I sat out of view crying along with him. It was all too tempting to run in, snatch him up, and never let him out of my arms. The teachers talked me out of this every time. During a meeting, one even slammed her hand down on the table insisting, “We can’t give up on him; we have to let this work!” And she was right.
As time went on, I saw both teachers and aides doing everything they could for my son, and without them, I’m convinced he wouldn’t have progressed nearly as much as he has. Because of this, I know that the majority of teachers and aides in this country are not only good people, but also society’s most underpaid and underappreciated heroes.
Unfortunately, with every majority comes a minority—the so-called bad apples that leave a stain on an otherwise good school. Call them untrained, under-qualified, or even uncaring: These are the ones who are responsible for much of the abusive practices used in public and private schools, along with these recent news headlines:
- Redwood City teacher accused of slapping, kicking special needs students.
- Teacher charged with abusing special needs child.
- APS superintendent says handcuffing boy, 7, was inappropriate.
- School puts autistic child in isolation.
- Autistic children at Exley Elementary were force-fed vinegar-soaked cotton balls.
- Teacher punching special needs student caught on video.
- Special needs kids tied down, blindfolded on bus.
- Teacher probed for hitting pupil.
- Teacher accused of using hot sauce to discipline students under fire again.
Abusive practices in schools: how bad is it?
In 2009, after completing its nationwide investigation into the use of restraint and seclusion in public schools, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its report on Selected Cases of Death and Abuse at Public and Private Schools and Treatment Centers. The investigation concluded that there were “no federal laws restricting the use of seclusion and restraints in public and private schools and widely divergent laws at the state level.” It also stated that there were “hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and death related to the use of these methods on school children during the past two decades.”
The report gave examples of these cases, including a seven-year-old purportedly dying after being held face down for hours by school staff, five-year-olds allegedly being tied to chairs with bungee cords and duct tape by their teacher and suffering broken arms and bloody noses, and a 13-year-old reportedly hanging himself in a seclusion room after prolonged confinement.
In terms of special needs children, the report found that those with disabilities are reportedly being restrained and secluded in public and private schools and other facilities, sometimes resulting in injury and death. The 10 closed cases examined by the GAO revealed that children with disabilities were sometimes restrained and secluded even when they did not appear to be physically aggressive and their parents did not give consent. They also were restrained facedown or using other methods of restraint that block air to the lungs, which can be deadly. The teachers and staff in these cases were often not trained in the use of restraints and techniques, and they continue to be employed as educators.
Even worse, the reasoning behind the use of these practices makes every student vulnerable, not just those with special needs. Whether it is for convenience, discipline, or is, as some would claim, “therapy,” the misuse of restraint especially has become a dangerous standard of practice without any evidence to back it. According to the Alliance to Prevent Restraint, Aversive Interventions & Seclusion (APRAIS), research shows that aversive interventions, restraint, and seclusion carry no therapeutic value, and as we’ve seen, can compromise health and safety.
Let’s Just Call It Abuse
There’s nothing more frustrating in the advocacy world than opposing interpretations of the same word. Solutions are much more difficult to come by if one side feels there is no problem in the first place. We of course see this with the very label of our community—autism. Many in the community interpret autism, or being autistic, as a privilege, a gift; even something you are rather than something you have. Others see it as a “have” condition of pain, discomfort, limitation and risk.
Similar multiple meanings apply to restraint. Many educators believe restraints are used to maintain the safety and order of the classroom and students, while those who oppose their use believe they are dangerous to the physical and mental health of children, and may result in death. While restraint may be used for instances when immediate danger threatens any individual, its misuse for the purpose of controlling behavior, disciplining, or asserting authority should be called something else entirely.
Seclusion rooms—recently referred to as “scream rooms”—are not only harmful, they defeat the entire purpose of inclusivity. Unlike restraint, which has the “imminent danger” exception to the rule, forcing a child into an empty room, closet, stall or cage has no exception. “Aversive intervention,” which is a preferable and friendlier term over abuse or torture, encompasses restraint and seclusion, but also covers the use of random disciplinary actions ranging from force-feeding and forced exercise, to duct-taping and verbal assault. At a minimum, these practices cause trauma and regression in children with autism and are quite simply abusive.
It is estimated that more than 200 students, many with disabilities, have died due to seclusion and restraint practices being used in schools over the last five years. While restraining someone against their will is typically considered a crime, its continued allowable misuse in schools can cause postural asphyxia, unintended strangulation, death due to choking or vomiting and being unable to clear the airway, death due to inability to escape in the event of fire or other disaster, cutting off of blood circulation by restraints, and nerve damage by restraints. Other dangers include post-traumatic stress disorder, heart, gastrointestinal and pulmonary complications, decreased appetite and malnutrition, dehydration, urinary tract infections, incontinence, anxiety and agitation, depression, loss of dignity, sleeping problems, increased phobias and increased aggression, including SIB (self-injurious behavior).
As one advocate recently pointed out, the use of these practices could also increase a child’s tendency to run or elope, behaviors that have their own set of risks. According to my organization, the National Autism Association (NAA), at least 80 individuals with autism were reported missing between September 2011 and February 2012 following elopement. Of those, 25 percent were students who left school grounds.
A Long Overdue Federal Bill
The good news is that federal legislation has recently been introduced to protect students from these dangerous practices. The Keeping All Students Safe Act, introduced by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), would provide protections to students across the country by prohibiting interventions that compromise health and safety. It would require that schools conduct a debriefing with parents and staff after a restraint is used, as well as plan for positive behavioral interventions that will prevent the use of restraints with the student in the future. It also would prohibit:
- Aversive behavioral interventions that compromise health and safety.
- Physical restraint that is life threatening, including physical restraint that restricts breathing.
- Physical restraint if contraindicated based on the student’s disability, healthcare needs, or medical or psychiatric condition.
- The use of seclusions and/or restraints in a student’s Individual Education Plan or any other behavioral plan.
- Seclusion in locked and unattended rooms or enclosures.
Help End The Abuse
Now is the time to protect our community. Contact your state representative and ask him/her to support the Keeping All Students Safe Act (S. 2020).
If You’re a Parent…
Ask your child’s teacher or aide if your child has ever been restrained or secluded, and broach the topic with your child regardless of their language function. For children with basic language, be sure to ask questions (for example, “Do your teachers have special names for you?” “Where do you sit in class, or at lunch?” “Who’s your least favorite teacher, and why?” “What’s your least favorite class, and why?”).
Place a “No Consent” letter into your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP)—you can see a RespectABILITY Law sample letter at the TASH website (www.tash.org). Create a “student profile” for your child and give a copy to his teachers—include his name, age, your contact information, his photograph, and any pertinent medical information such as allergies. Also state his likes/dislikes, safe ways to de-escalate him, triggers to avoid, and any salient dos and don’ts. Make it clear under what circumstances you wish to be contacted about any problems that might occur with your child, and make sure you instruct them never to call the police in response to an escalated situation, but to call you instead.
Never allow the inclusion of restraint & seclusion into your child’s IEP, or any language implying this (see Words To Avoid). Review your child’s records (especially the contents of the education and/or treatment plan, and any “incident reports” in your child’s files), and make visits during which you carefully observe all aspects of your child’s day. Keep careful records that document and date anything your child says or does that concerns you; take and date photographs of any suspicious injuries and share your concerns with your child’s physician, psychologist, or other health care provider. If you suspect abuse, remain calm for your child’s sake, and immediately contact your State Education Agency.
If You’re a Teacher…
Never use prone (facedown) restraint, supine (face-up) restraint, and never restrain or seclude a student as a form of discipline or convenience—instead, try to identify the root of the child’s behavior so it may be addressed. Restraint should only be used in emergency situations where a child or adult is in imminent danger. To minimize risks, escalation triggers should be avoided, de-escalation techniques should be implemented, and dangerous practices should be eliminated altogether.
Request crisis intervention training and continuing education, and share any concerns with school administrators. Immediately report any abusive practices you may witness to school administrators and/or your State Education Agency, and never withhold information about these incidents. Carefully document all incidents, and always inform the parent of any incidents involving restraint or seclusion, and/or if you witness mistreatment, abuse or improper use of restraint and seclusion.