Restraint and Seclusion: The Dark Secret of American Schools


I recently examined the events in Newtown through the lens of special education in this country, contending it is a broken system in need of as much attention as gun control and mental health. Out of that sprang a question in my mind, “In the last year, how many special needs children died in our schools at the hands of adults charged with their care?” 

It took me a long time to find an answer, and the answer is I couldn’t find a definitive one.

A hodgepodge of statistics gathered by various groups demonstrates that there is no national system of reporting serious and fatal incidents involving restraint and seclusion in our schools. States vary as to whether they even have rules and regulations governing interventions in the school setting. Many injuries and deaths go unreported. The best information we have comes from a report issued by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2009 estimating that over 200 students have died as a result of school based seclusion and restraints between 1999 and 2009.

Then on May 27, 2009, The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) issued a report, “ Unsafe in the Schoolhouse: Abuse of Children with Disabilities,” which contained the horrifying statistic that 68% of the students who were subject to seclusion or restraints were diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s syndrome. In other words, brute force is applied in lieu of best practices in dealing with our children’s autism

Restraint and Seclusion: Resource Document (US Dept of Ed, May 2012) puts forth a concerted effort to address these serious issues. The report makes clear that restraint and seclusion are intended only as a means of last resort, when the child is of imminent harm to himself or others. Aside from physical harm that can culminate in death, restraint and seclusion psychologically mar the child, and as a strategy provokes the behaviors it is intended to stop. Tragically, restraint or seclusion are often used as a routine means to address instructional problems or inappropriate behavior such as disrespect, noncompliance, insubordination, etc., as a means of coercion or retaliation, or simple convenience. Lack of training is cited as a huge element in harmful and deadly incidents. The report goes on to conclude that positive behavior supports must supplant restraint and seclusion. A comprehensive list of fifteen guidelines are laid out, but the document lacks muscle. 

Unless and until there is national legislation, there will be no enforceable protections. Sen. Thomas “Tom” Harkin [D-IA] recently introduced S. 2020: Keeping All Students Safe Act, but lawmakers have indicated no plans to take up the issue. Indeed, govtrack.us gives us a dismal prognosis that it has a 34% chance of getting past committee and 6% chance of being enacted. 

How many more children will be psychologically damaged, physically injured, or killed before lawmakers take up their cause??

Susan Moffitt

8 Responses to Restraint and Seclusion: The Dark Secret of American Schools

  1. Deidre Hammon says:

    Great article. In Nevada a People First group in the north of the state has found similar discrimination against students with autism and those labeled SED which is often also students with autism who are undiagnosed. Although seclusion is illegal in Nevada, the group has found that if closets still exist, they get used, in spite of the law, and that programs placed in classrooms with closets are far more likely to be classrooms that serve the majority of student with autism or SED. We do need a law, then we need to get school district’s to tear out the rooms which are often not built to code and fail to have adequate air exchange to ensure victims can breathe effectively (especially in agitated states which result in an increased need for oxygen)

  2. Susan Moffitt says:

    thanks for writing!

  3. Tracy Sherwood says:

    I just can’t get over it. To me it’s like taking a child to a babysitter that molests, beats, and hate him. And the parent keeps taking him back there because they don’t bother to make other arrangements for him. So they keep yelling, “Will someone tell this babysitter to quite hurting my child?!” PARENTS QUITE TAKING THEM THERE. Create your own parent coop schools and homeschools. It’s not easy! But do it!

  4. Tracy Sherwood says:

    corrections: hates, not hate and quit (not quite).

  5. Amy Peterson says:

    My son was not improperly restrained or secluded (or not that I am aware of) but he did suffer systemtic verbal and mental abuse and more, and our family suffered when after we sought answers, solutions, and accountability, the district, union, and its many powerful friends retaliated. My husband and I were nearly divorced due to the immense stress and emotional strain, and having no one to turn to, because we didn’t know whom we could trust for certain. We separated for a time, and when we reconciled, we moved our family away from our hometown city and as a result pulled our younger children from the preschool and elementary school I had attended.

    I am starting to think that mainstream schools are demonstrating they don’t want our special needs students there. I wonder if mainstream has been a success or a failure. Even for my son, now 20, who has high functioning autism, the big problems happened in middle school and at the high school they were just clueless with their expectations and consequences — had no idea what to do with a boy of average (or possibly better) intelligence with great need for structure, redirection, tools to help focus and swaths of time to do his artwork and avoid the sensory overload of a regular class. I think a special school would have met his needs better if one was available.

    Starting a private or charter school is an enormous undertaking. I think it’s a great idea – I wonder if a blueprint for special needs charter schools could be created so that we could take on the challenge of providing for our children’s educational needs.

    I hope you will join us at Act to Keep Students Safe. The legislation is NOT dead. The House committee on Education & the Workforce is taking it up right now, and the Committee has indicated its biggest need that can be met by citizens is public relations — get the word out and generate public pressure around this issue.

    The website is here http://keepstudentssafe.com/ we are developing a multi media campaign to inform, educate and galvanize the public.

    The listserv is here — we need everyone’s voice! http://groups.yahoo.com/group/KeepStudentsSafe/

    Please join our campaign.

    Amy Peterson
    Advocate and parent of a now-20 year old son with autism

  6. Susan Moffitt says:

    So true.

    It’s pillar to post trying to find a safe place outside the home.

  7. Susan says:

    I agree, Amy. Mainstream schools don’t want special education students. Thanks for the valuable info about the legislation. I’ll head to the website post haste.

  8. Deidre Hammon says:

    Amy, et. al., I have worked as an advocate for some 28 years now. Let me assure you segregation is far worse than anything that may have happened to your children in general education settings. Segregation is not the answer. It is hard to get our kids through middle and high school, but I work with adults from both environments, and people who suffered the humiliation and shaming so often dumped on them day in and day out, are by far worse off than people who are integrated in spite of harassment. Backwards is not an answer.

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