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Education Reporter

Schools Use Restraint, Seclusion to Control Troubled Children
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Overwhelmed by behavior problems and the needs of mainstreamed children who have autism or other disorders, some schools have turned to strong-arm tactics to keep students under control. In some cases, schools may have little choice; but in others, teachers and staff have clearly gone too far, injuring students or even causing their deaths.

"In all the years I went to school, I never, ever saw or heard of anything like the horrific stories about restraint that we see just about every day now," Alison Tepper Singer of Autism Speaks recently told the New York Times (7-15-08).

At one school, a child talks back to a teacher, and the teacher locks him in a closet. Another school contains disorderly children in a fenced area, resembling a dog run, without food, water, or access to a bathroom. A U.S. Department of Education investigation uncovered these situations and many others at public schools in California.

A student whose ADHD-type behaviors landed him repeatedly in a closet as a 6th-grader in Livermore, CA spoke to local news channel CBS5 about his experiences. "Human beings aren't supposed to be treating each other like that, you know," he said. The student's parents pulled him from that school and began homeschooling him; they say he's doing much better. The parents also filed a complaint against the school. The district, acknowledging the problem with how staff had treated the child, shut that school's special education program down.

Leslie Morrison, an investigator with Protection and Advocacy Inc., explained schools' use of "takedowns" to CBS5. The tactic, commonly employed by juvenile halls and psychiatric institutions, involves holding the child or teenager facedown on the floor and leaning on his back or sides.

Morrison warned that without proper training - and few public school teachers are well trained in how to take down an out-of-control child - the tactic can be extremely dangerous. "As the child is struggling to breathe, the person is holding them down on the floor to stop the struggling. And what happens is you actually stop them breathing," she said. (CBS5, 6-27-08)

14-year-old Cedrick Napoleon died while being held in a facedown restraint in a Killeen, TX special education classroom in 2002. 15-year-old Michael Renner-Lewis, III, an autistic boy, died in 2003 after staff members at Parchment High School in Michigan held him facedown for over an hour. That same year, another Michigan special education student died of heart failure after being restrained. Michigan's board of education has since adopted new regulations on restraint and seclusion in schools. The new policies prohibit teachers or staff from holding students facedown or using any restraint that restricts breathing.

Such deaths are more common for troubled children in residential treatment facilities or behavior modification programs, public or private. The Coalition Against Institutionalized Child Abuse (www.caica.org) documents about 120 deaths of children who were restrained, beaten, or neglected in such institutions, many of them state-funded, since 1990. Other groups have estimated that between 50 and 150 people of all ages die in the United States each year while being restrained in an institutional setting.

State-funded nursing homes and psychiatric facilities that use restraints are accountable to the government; they must record and report physical incidents with patients. The problem in public schools, however, is still so new that few states have begun to ask whether schools, too, need such accountability. Pennsylvania and Tennessee, as well as Michigan, have recently passed laws regulating the use of seclusion and restraint in schools. Several other states, including California, Iowa, and New York, are also considering such regulations.

Dr. Stephen Anderson, CEO of Summit Educational Resources, opined that restraining students is sometimes necessary, but only as a last resort. "Restraint is the emergency procedure, it's the backup, it's the thing you may have to do if all else fails and there's a risk to the individual or others," he told New York's WIVB network (7-30-08).

Anderson sympathized with the challenges schools face as they try to accommodate students with behavioral or psychological problems. "I don't think school districts have ever seen this with the frequency that they're seeing it now because they're keeping kids with more challenging behaviors within the context," he said.

American public schools serve 600,000 more special education students now than they did a decade ago. In 2005, 472,000 children received special education services from the public school system specifically for emotional disturbances. While in 1990, only 17% of children receiving such services attended school in "fully inclusive" settings (regular classrooms), 35% do so today.

Parents who have pushed successfully for their children to be mainstreamed in regular public schools are sometimes reluctant to complain or take action against teachers who overuse restraint and seclusion to keep kids in line. For many children with more moderate problems, mainstreaming works well; and almost all parents of children with such problems would rather try to make things work at the mainstream school. Out of the mainstream, their child would spend all day with others who are even more troubled; and in some other environments, takedowns and restraints are the rule rather than the exception.

"The danger comes when schools turn methods designed for extraordinary circumstances into routine disciplinary tools," concluded the Wall Street Journal (7-9-07). "The result can be a vicious cycle of punishment and rebellion, hurting the very children who were supposed to benefit from attending a mainstream school."

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