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Senate Committee Considers Positive Alternatives to Seclusion and Restraint of School Children

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa)

WASHINGTON - Corey Foster, 16, was playing basketball with his friends at his school in Yonkers, N.Y., in April, when a staff member asked them to leave the court. What happened next is in dispute, with witnesses describing aggressive staff who escalated the situation and school officials who deny that. But the conflict ended with several staff members on top of Corey, who suffered cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead at a hospital later that day.

“It wasn’t known to me that they were touching my son,” said Sheila Foster, Corey’s mother, who was in Washington, D.C., on Thursday for a Senate committee hearing  in support of federal restrictions on restraint techniques in schools. “If I had known Corey was being touched or tied or restrained, I wouldn’t have had him in that school.”

Foster was on Capitol Hill at a hearing, held by the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, on how schools can adopt positive alternatives to isolating students in rooms or restraining them in response to challenging student behavior. Witnesses included school administrators from Georgia, Virginia and Pennsylvania, who testified about the results they have achieved using individualized plans to encourage good behavior.

The issue of restraints and seclusion at schools has gained public attention in recent years, driven by the inclusion of more special-needs children in mainstream schools after the passage of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Students were restrained nearly 39,000 times during the 2009 to 2010 school year, with nearly 70 percent of incidents involving students with disabilities, said Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) in his introductory remarks at the hearing, citing data by the U.S. Department of Education. Data released in March revealed racial disparities as well, Harkin said: African-American students, who make up 21 percent of students with disabilities, represented 44 percent of those restrained mechanically.

Such “outdated and outmoded” practices often exacerbate the behavior that they were intended to curb, and for some children, result in injury or even death, Harkin said. “Positive behavioral interventions and supports can reduce or completely eliminate the need for these procedures,” Harkin said.

Harkin and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) have introduced Senate and House versions of the Keeping All Children Safe Act, S.B. 2020 and H. B. 1381, which prohibits the use of chemical and mechanical restraints, and the use of physical restraints in a way that constrict a student’s breathing.

Harkin’s version for the Senate bill also prohibits seclusion, only allows the use of physical restraint on students in case of emergencies and mandates staff to use the least amount of force necessary. It also emphasizes parental notification within 24 hours of an incident.

The legislation, which by Harkin’s own admission appears unlikely to pass a deadlocked Congress this year, has widespread support from dozens of organizations who work or advocate for people with disabilities, including the National Autism Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the American Association of People with Disabilities.

But other groups, like the American Association of School Administrators, vehemently oppose any effort to create federal limits on seclusion and restraint practices in schools, saying that the majority of school staff uses such practices correctly and that such limits put staff in danger. Nearly half of all school personnel who have received training in seclusion and restraint techniques were attacked by a student one to five times during the 2010 to 2011 school year, according a March report by AASA.

In May, the Department of Education released 15 principles that schools and parents should follow when deciding whether to use restraints on students or to isolate them from their peers. Such advice “would go a long way” in preventing dangerous behavior if schools were to follow it faithfully, says APRAIS, a consortium of dozens of organizations that work with people with disabilities.

“However,” APRAIS wrote in a letter supporting the adoption of federal legislation limiting the use of restraint and seclusion in schools, “these principles are voluntary and offer families no recourse if schools do not choose to follow them.”

Foster, whose son Corey died after being restrained by school staff, hopes her advocacy can help grant recourse to other parents.

“While I cannot bring my son back, I can advocate for other children,” she said.

New Rules: Isolation, Handcuffs, Hogties

Schools cannot put children in seclusion rooms as a form of punishment anymore, and must limit the use of physical and chemical restraints. The State Board of Education approved new rules Thursday for handcuffing children, controlling them with prone restraint tactics, and giving them prescription drugs to control their behavior. These measures are now limited to situations where students are an immediate danger to themselves or others, or when calming techniques don’t work.

Parents of 13-year old Jonathon King of Gainesville pushed for changes after their son hanged himself in a seclusion room in 2004. Jonathan was a student in the Alpine Program, a public school in Gainesville, Ga. for students with emotional and behavioral problems. A few weeks before his death, Jonathan told his parents that teachers had been putting him in time out.   They testified last month at a hearing at the Board of Education.  “After he died, we found out that Jonathan wasn’t in there for minutes,” Don King said. “He was in there for hours at a time every day.”

For decades, Georgia schools have used seclusion and various types of restraints on children with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to prevent classroom disruptions. “I’ve seen handcuffs, hogties, kids being tied up with Velcro. I’ve seen kids locked in storage closets. And I’ve seen, very recently, a plywood box in a principal’s office,” says Leslie Lipson, spokesperson for the Georgia Advocacy Office, who also testified in June.

The new rules apply to all children in public schools, and get praise from Randee Waldman, director of the Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic at Emory Law School. ”Georgia is trying to address this. Georgia is one step ahead,” She adds, “Handcuffs shouldn’t be used to punish a child,”

But educators and child advocates admit they’re not sure exactly how often children are placed in seclusion, or handcuffed, or even how many are arrested in Georgia schools. Data from the Education Department indicates approximately 1,900 children statewide were referred to juvenile court during the 2008-2009 school year.  However, numbers from Atlanta are missing from the count, and some experts believe the total may be significantly higher.

“We’re having a hard time figuring out how many kids are referred to Juvenile Court much less handcuffed,” says Waldman. “Schools are not required to maintain data on how many times children are handcuffed. “

That may soon change. Brad Bryant, the new state schools superintendent, tells the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he expects a data collection system to be put in place. And for the first time, parents must be notified when their children have been restrained by a school administrator or teacher.

The Board approved the new policy on the same day school officials in New Orleans were slapped with a federal lawsuit for shackling a 6-year old boy to a desk.

The first grader was arrested, handcuffed and chained up by school police after arguing with another child over a seat in the lunchroom.   The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class action lawsuit Thursday in Federal Court, claiming the arrest for a minor violation of school rules is unlawful and a violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

The complaint names the elementary school principal, school superintendent and security director, and was filed on behalf of all children in the school.  SPLC Attorney Thena Robinson says, "We’re hopeful this [lawsuit] will send a powerful message. We have to treat kids with dignity.  There are ways to keep kids safe and treat them with dignity."

The boy’s father, Sebastian Weston, says his son was treated like an animal is now terrified of school.

A spokesman for the Recovery School District confirms the incident happened May 6, and two security officers were fired, but would not comment further.

The suit alleges the officers were not properly trained “about developmentally appropriate responses to elementary school children who fail to follow school rules.”

Attorneys also contend that under state law, a 6-year old child cannot be arrested, but the school principal had a policy of handcuffing children who violated rules.  When the officers chained him to the furniture “they subjected him to an unreasonable and excessively intrusive seizure that was calculated solely to punish, humiliate and intimidate. “

“We cannot wrap our heads around why the principal thought it would be okay to shackle a child to a desk,” Robinson says. “So many things could have been done, even if he was getting out of control. Six-year olds throw temper tantrums.  It’s up to adults to redirect them.”

Isolation, hogties, handcuffs and Velcro

By Ken Watts

Their voices cracked with emotion as they recalled a devastating loss. Don and Tina King's 13-year old son Jonathan hanged himself after a teacher locked him in a windowless 8X8 closet called a "seclusion room."

Jonathan was a student in the Alpine Program, a public school in Gainesville, Ga. for students with emotional and behavioral problems.  A few weeks before his death in 2004, Jonathan told his parents that teachers had put him in "time out."

"After he died, we found out that Jonathan wasn't in there for minutes," Don King said. "He was in there for hours at a time every day."

The Kings were among dozens of parents and activists demanding changes in state rules aimed at preventing a repeat of the Jonathan King tragedy. They spoke Wednesday at the Georgia Board of Education's public hearing. "I just want to say I don't want nobody else to go through what we've gone through with our child, "King said.

For decades, Georgia schools have used seclusion and various types of restraints on children with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to prevent classroom disruptions.

"I've seen handcuffs, hogties, kids being tied up with Velcro. I've seen kids locked in storage closets. And I've seen, very recently, a plywood box in a principal's office," says Leslie Lipson, spokesperson for the Georgia Advocacy Office.

Alicia Boyd told the board her 60-pound son was severely bruised when school instructors forced the child into a prone position and applied their weight on his body to hold him down. "He should not have been restrained," she said. "They should have realized that if you hold him by his hand, give him your undivided attention and talk to him...  that was all they needed to do."

Georgia is not the only state where educators use these tactics in the classroom. The U.S. Government Accountability Office studied the issue in 2009 and found no federal laws restricting the use of seclusion and restraint in schools and widely divergent laws at a state level. Georgia is listed as one of 19 states that have no such laws.

The GAO report said public schools in Texas and California used seclusion and restraint 33,000 times in 2008 alone. Congressional investigators studied four cases where children died, including a 14 year old Texas boy who stopped breathing when his special-education teacher held him down by lying on top of him. GAO investigators could not determine whether such abuse was widespread, but they did find hundreds of abuse allegations during the past two decades. The report summarized some common findings:

  • Children with disabilities were sometimes restrained and secluded when they were not physically aggressive
  • Parents often did not give their consent for schools to these tactics
  • Facedown restraints can be deadly
  • Most teachers and staffers were not trained to use restraint

Georgia's new rules would ban seclusion and the use of chemical restraints such as prescription psychotic drugs, mechanical restraints such as handcuffs, and prone restraints, where teachers use their own weight to hold a child face-down on the floor.

At Wednesday’s hearing, some school officials agreed with the parents and criticized abuses but said there might still be times when restraints are used.

Kathy Wooten, Director of Special Needs in the Lee County, Ga. school district, cited the case of an emotionally disabled student who had injured other students and teachers. She said teachers were able to help improve the student's behavior with positive reinforcement. They put him in monitored seclusion and a restraint chair only when he was aggressive, Wooten said.

While praising the proposed rules change, activists are urging the board to add a provision requiring accountability and data collection. The Georgia Advocacy Office says there are no reliable numbers on how many times schools in the state have used seclusion and restraint. They hope some data will motivate administrators to track which schools need help reducing the use of restraint and which schools are supporting students well without restraint.

Parents are hoping for an additional benefit: better education for special needs children. Don King hopes that teachers and aides will adopt a more productive approach if a student has to be isolated.

"What they need to do is put a child off with a teacher, get that student calmed down and show him how not to be disruptive," King says. "If they can't do that, they need to call the parents and let them know what's going on with their child instead of leaving the parents in the dark like they did us."

The State Board of Education will vote next month on whether to officially adopt the new rules.

Ken Watts anchored the evening news at WAGA-TV and morning news at 11Alive.  He has covered crime, politics, education and the arts in Atlanta for 29 years.