Forum Post: Violent and Legal: The Shocking Ways School Kids Are Being Pinned Down, Isolated Against Their Will
Posted 10 months ago on June 23, 2014, 8:25 p.m. EST by LeoYo
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Violent and Legal: The Shocking Ways School Kids Are Being Pinned Down, Isolated Against Their Will
Monday, 23 June 2014 10:44
By Heather Vogell, ProPublica | Report
The room where they locked up Heather Luke's 10-year-old son had cinder block walls, a dim light and a fan in the ceiling that rattled so insistently her son would beg them to silence it.
Sometimes, Carson later told his mother, workers would run the fan to make him stop yelling. A thick metal door with locks—which they threw, clank-clank-clank—separated the autistic boy from the rest of the decrepit building in Chesapeake, Virginia, just south of Norfolk.
The room that officials benignly called the "quiet area" so agitated the tall and lanky blond boy that one day in March 2011, his mother said, Carson flew into a panic at the mere suggestion of being confined there after an outburst. He had lashed out, hitting, scratching and hurling his shoes. Staff members held him down, then muscled him through the hallway and attempted to lock him in, yet again.
But this time, the effort went awry. Staffers crushed Carson's hand while trying to slam the door. A surgeon later needed to operate to close the bleeding half-moon a bolt had punched into his left palm. The wound was so deep it exposed bone.
Carson's ordeal didn't take place in a psychiatric facility or juvenile jail. It happened at a public school.
For more than a decade, mental-health facilities and other institutions have worked to curtail the practice of physically restraining children or isolating them in rooms against their will. Indeed, federal rules restrict those practices in nearly all institutions that receive money from Washington to help the young—including hospitals, nursing homes and psychiatric centers.
But such limits don't apply to public schools.
Restraining and secluding students for any reason remains perfectly legal under federal law. And despite a near-consensus that the tactics should be used rarely, new data suggests some schools still routinely rely on them to control children.
The practices—which have included pinning uncooperative children facedown on the floor, locking them in dark closets and tying them up with straps, handcuffs, bungee cords or even duct tape—were used more than 267,000 times nationwide in the 2012 school year, a ProPublica analysis of new federal data shows. Three-quarters of the students restrained had physical, emotional or intellectual disabilities.
Children have gotten head injuries, bloody noses, broken bones and worse while being restrained or tied down—in one Iowa case, to a lunch table. A 13-year-old Georgia boy hanged himself after school officials gave him a rope to keep up his pants before shutting him alone in a room.
At least 20 children nationwide have reportedly died while being restrained or isolated over the course of two decades, the Government Accountability Office found in 2009.
"It's hard to believe this kind of treatment is going on in America," says parent and advocate Phyllis Musumeci. A decade ago, her autistic son was restrained 89 times over 14 months at his school in Florida. "It's a disgrace."
The federal data shows schools recorded 163,000 instances in which students were restrained in just one school year. In most cases, staff members physically held them down. But in 7,600 reports, students were put in "mechanical" restraints such as straps or handcuffs. (Arrests were not included in the data.) Schools said they placed children in what are sometimes called "scream rooms" roughly 104,000 times.
A Minnesota Department of Education report shows these three common restraints. So-called prone restraints are known to restrict breathing and can be lethal to children. About half of states don’t have a law prohibiting public schools from using such restraints. Minnesota is enacting regulations to limit prone restraints.
Those figures almost certainly understate what's really happening. Advocates and government officials say underreporting is rampant. Fewer than one-third of the nation's school districts reported using restraints or seclusions even once during the school year.
Schools that used restraints or seclusions at all did so an average of 18 times in the 2012 school year, the data shows. But hundreds of schools used them far more often—reporting dozens, and even hundreds, of instances.
School superintendents who defend the practices say they are needed to protect teachers and children when students grow so agitated that their behavior turns dangerous. They argue that if educators don't have the freedom to restrain and isolate children as they see fit, they will be forced to send more students to restrictive settings such as residential institutions.
"We believe the use of seclusion and restraint has enabled many students with serious emotional or behavioral conditions to be educated not only within our public schools, but also in the least restrictive and safest environments possible," the American Association of School Administrators wrote in a 2012 position paper.
Most critics of restraints agree they are sometimes unavoidable. But they say schools too often fail to try alternatives for calming students and use the tactics for the wrong reasons—because children failed to follow directions, for instance, or had tantrums. Indeed, in a recent survey, nearly 1 in 5 school district leaders approved of using restraints or seclusion as punishment.
"We have hundreds of examples of kids who are being restrained and secluded for behaviors that do not rise to the level of causing harm to themselves or others," says Cindy Smith, policy counsel at the National Disability Rights Network.
And often, parents remain unaware their child has been restrained or put in a scream room. That's because in many states, schools aren't required to notify parents. (Related: See what the rules are in your state.)
Only after Musumeci's son, Christian, who is autistic and has trouble speaking, started protesting when it was time to go to school—repeating, "No school, no school, no"—did she learn from school records how often he had been restrained.
School workers forced Christian, who they said had become aggressive and tried to hurt himself, to lie facedown on the floor in nearly one-third of the incidents. The prone position is particularly dangerous, because it can restrict breathing.
"I remember just sitting on the bed reading them and crying," Musumeci says, recalling her horror at what the records revealed. She said the school claimed to have notified her, but it hadn't. "If you did this at home," she says, "you'd be arrested."
More than four years ago, federal lawmakers began a campaign to restrict restraints and seclusions in public schools, except during emergencies. Despite a thick stack of alarming reports, the legislation has gone nowhere.
Opponents of the legislation say policy decisions about the practices are best left to state and local leaders. The federal government's role, they say, should be limited to simply making sure districts have enough money to train staff to prevent and handle bad behavior.
But states and districts have shown they won't create enough safeguards on their own, say advocates and other supporters of the legislation. Despite years of public concern about the practices, schools in most states can still restrain kids even when imminent danger doesn't exist.
This February, timed with the re-introduction of legislation to limit the practices, Senate staffers released a report concluding that dangerous use of restraints and seclusion is "widespread" in public schools. Neither practice, the report said, benefits students therapeutically or academically.
"In fact, use of either seclusion or restraints in non-emergency situations poses significant physical and psychological danger to students," it warned.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who is pushing for legislation, doesn't stifle his anger when talking about what he sees as a need to enact basic protections for students.
"I'm just stunned that you can take an action of seclusion or restraint that turns out to be harmful in almost all instances to the student," he says, "and there's no notification to the parent."
"It's so fundamental: You don't traumatize children."
The day Carson was hurt, Luke was shopping at a toy store when her cellphone rang. There had been an accident, a school worker told her.
She found Carson sitting quietly in the nurse's office. His left hand was a swollen mass of black and blue wrapped in thick gauze. He had a bandage on his right foot.
His face had a gray pallor. Luke turned to the nurse and principal. "I believe my exact words were, 'What the hell happened here?' "
We had to take him to the quiet area, the principal told her, Luke recalls. He was being aggressive.
No one had called for medical assistance. Luke drove the boy to the emergency room. He underwent surgery to close the wound on his left hand and had casts put on it and on his foot, which was also broken. He spent the night in the hospital.