Unethical Restraint of Disabled Children in K-12 Public Education

Unethical Restraint of Disabled Children in K-12 Public Education

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Breanna Prater started this petition to President Donald J. Trump and

10 year old Quentin Tidd likes to play on the swingset with his friends during recess and enjoys reading time at school. However, Quentin’s school experience has been far from ordinary. Quentin has autism and behavioral issues and from the ages of 7 to 10 he was restrained or secluded from his peers 437 times. That’s the equivalent of 81% of his school days. NPR wrote on June 15, 2019 that this experience traumatized Quentin, increased his violent tendencies, and made him stop trusting authority figures. 

Quentin is not alone. According to an investigation by the United States Government Accountability Office published on June 18, 2019, 122,000 children were restrained during the 2015-2016 school year, the most recent year for which data is available. And as the Disability Scoop revealed on January 19, 2019  these incidents are severely under reported, with 35 states reporting zero incidents. While there are loose guidelines about how seclusion can be used in schools, there are no federal laws regulating when, how, and how often restraint can be used. This means that the harmful practice is used too often on special needs children, especially boys like Quentin. Disabled children are being isolated and restrained at unhealthily high rates and the government and public school system perpetuates and enables this abuse. 

Jessica Contero is deeply grieved by the way Thornton Public Schools in California treated her 7 year old son with special needs. On several occasions a frustrated teacher has put their full body weight on top of her son, held his arms behind his back and pushed  him to the floor to restrain him. As Jessica told News 4 San Antonio on May 13, 2019, the school district denies her claims of abuse and the teacher is still employed  in good standing. Jessica’s story illustrates the serious, twofold problem behind the unethical restraint of disabled children: students are being harmed, and schools misreport the data.

Students are often injured by the practice of restraint due to its physical, violent nature. The American Civil Liberties Union reported on February 27, 2019 that 7,000 children were mechanically restrained in the 2015-2016 school year, despite the fact that a 2009 regulation prohibited the use of  “any device to restrict a student’s movement.” The second aspect of this problem is that public schools are mis-reporting data. As the US Government Accountability Office reported on June 18, 2019 70% of school districts nationwide reported zero incidents of student restraint in 2018. Additionally, parents are often not even told that their child was restrained.

When Michelle went to pick up her son from elementary school in January she was met with a terrible sight reminiscent of a torture chamber. Her son was in an isolation room, sweating in his winter coat, with the door wedged shut and loud music drowning out his screams. Michelle told Pacific Northwest Inlander on June 20, 2019 that her son had been there for half an hour. An investigation revealed that in the 2018-2019 school year Michelle’s school district utilized seclusion at 10 times the national average, despite reporting zero incidents. 

There are two causes behind this problem; lack of training for educators, and inadequate regulations. Through no fault of their own, educators are not equipped to handle disabled children when they have behavioral issues.  Educators and administrators have been advocating for an increase in training and resources for decades, and have been ignored. Several teachers  told the Salem Reporter on July 2, 2019 that in Oregon alone there were over 500 instances in the 2018-2019 school year where special needs children acted out and the teachers were not adequately trained to help calm the child. In most cases both the staff member and the student were harmed . According to Dallas News, on June 27, 2019, most of the time, the teachers simply have no idea what to do. 

Second, current regulations are wholly inadequate. When you read through the US Department of Education’s Published Guidelines on Restraint and Seclusion, two stark inadequacies stand out. First, the official regulations have not been updated since 2009. And second, there are  actually no required actions, training, or policy. The document merely outlines vague suggestions for school districts to consider when creating their disciplinary policy. As NPR reported on June 5, 2019 many schools ignore these suggestions because there is neither follow up nor accountability. 

On the national level, the federal guidelines concerning disabled school children in these situations need to be updated. Ten years is simply too long and the Department of Education must revisit these regulations and strengthen them, giving teachers the proper protocols they desperately need. There is no requirement to follow the guidelines, or penalties for ignoring them. We need to implement clear, enforceable  regulations to help students with disabilities and protect teachers.

Second, Congress needs to pass HR 7124: Keeping All Students Safe Act of 2015. It was proposed by Representative Donald Bayer in 2015 and sentenced to death by committee. This bill would “prevent seclusion and reduce the use of physical restraint in schools,” providing sorely needed protection for all children. Without legislation like the Keeping All Students Safe Act there is no federal enforcement to ensure that school districts are held accountable. 

Disabled children are being isolated and restrained at unhealthily high rates and the government and public schools are the problem. Over 122,000 children like Quentin and Romeo will be restrained or isolated from their peers this school year. Please stand with me to help end the restraint and seclusion of disabled children in the public school system. Because school should be a safe place where kids don’t have to be afraid. 

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