Feds Seek to Outlaw Injurious & Deadly School Discipline Practices

On January 16, 2010, I posted an article about a federal report on the use of improper seclusions and restraints of children in our nation’s schools. These practices have been used mostly on children with disabilities, resulting in injury, trauma, and death.

See our original article, “US GAO Seclusions & Restraints Report” for more information about the federal report and its findings.  And, make sure you’re sitting down first before reading it because it will freak you out.

In March 2010, HR 4247 passed in the House of Representatives and was forwarded on to the Senate, where it remains pending before the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions as S 2860.  See the legislative history by clicking here.

Otherwise known as the Keeping All Students Safe Act, this legislation is meant to establish federal standards to prevent the improper use of seclusion and restraints in school settings, both public and private, and protect students from harm.  Similar federal protections already exist for those served in medical settings, including psychiatric facilities, but not in educational settings.  Some states have no regulations on the use of seclusions and restraints at all, leaving it up to individual institutions to set their own policies, or not, which really means that it often comes down to individual staff people – regardless of what kind of training they do or don’t have – to make a call as to how to handle a child with behavior problems.

One of the students our organization has been working with for the last few years was provided with residential placement as compensatory education for essentially years’ worth of educational neglect by his school district by order of an Administrative Law Judge as the result of a due process hearing, only to have his arm broken by a gung-ho paraprofessional who utilized a one-arm twist hold (like what cops use on street thugs) when the student attempted to get up from his calm-down mat too early.

The student’s arm had to be surgically repaired, he suffered permanent nerve damage that has decreased the mobility of his wrist, has a keloidal scar running down the inside of his arm across the bend at the elbow joint from the incision that had to be made for his surgery that limits his range of motion and flexation of his arm, and has bone pain in his arm every time the weather changes. He’s severely autistic with limited language and mild cognitive impairment; like life wasn’t already hard enough for this kid, he now has an additional life-long physical impairment to contend with.

I know from my experiences with this student and others we’ve worked with over the years that these are all too real issues that affect everyday families in communities across the nation.  This legislation is desperately needed to protect the health, safety, and the very lives of our children – especially those of our children who are least able to look out for themselves and are far more likely to be hurt by dangerous adults.

At the time of this writing, this legislation is still waiting on the Senate to vote on it.  I am urging each and every one of you to contact your state’s senators and implore them to pass this legislation.  KPS4Parents is not a lobbying group.  That’s not our function at all.  But this is a critical public policy issue that addresses not only a moral imperative, but a fiscally significant taxpayer concern.

What isn’t reported on in the GAO report is how much money gets sucked into personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits when things like this happen, or what happens when school employees who hurt children, even if unintentionally, lose their jobs. In a unionized school district, whether or not someone actually loses their job over hurting a child – especially one that was already “broken” with disabilities – may not result in much of a consequence to the involved staff at all; if it does, then there’s the potential for a lawsuit against the school district by the staff who got in trouble.

We had two cases back in 2004 involving two children from the same classroom that resulted in an entire ED special day class being shut down and the teaching team disbanded after it came to light that they were locking their elementary age students in the bathroom while they were having full-blown meltdowns (what would have happened if one of them had cracked his/her head on the corner of the sink while flipping out?) and tackling kids to the ground when they tried to run away (which was referred by school personnel to as elopement but was really an effort on the part of the kids to escape the abuse).  They would have to periodically evacuate the classroom because one of the aides was more prone to hysterical meltdowns than the students.  It was utter pandemonium in that classroom, verging on anarchy.

While no one in that case actually got fired (unfortunately), the costs to the taxpaying public over the whole three-ring circus that erupted over the situation was enormous.  All of the children in that class had to be moved to other placements, many requiring transportation to other classes that were better but farther away from home.  The cost of transporting them these extra distances came at public expense.  Everything about what happened ended up coming out of the taxpayers’ pockets.

Regardless of whether you care if children with disabilities are harmed by school discipline practices or not – though I certainly do hope you care, and care a lot – as a public policy issue, the monetary costs associated with improper behavioral interventions are incredibly high.  As a taxpayer issue alone, this pending legislation has significant merit.

Please contact your state’s senators and ask them to pass this legislation soon.  The GAO report came out in May 2009 and reported atrocities that had happened between 1990 and 2009.  It further reported that thousands of instances of seclusion and restraint were documented and reported as being utilized in the one-year period leading up to the date of the report, which doesn’t include the ones that were not documented and reported.  Not all states require schools to document and report the use of seclusion and restraints.

My point is that this has already been going on for a long time and I appreciate that we’re moving at the speed of Congress, but come on!  What are they waiting for?  More children to die?  I am very, very worried that this legislation is going to stall out until some horribly tragic high profile case makes it suddenly “hot” again and then it will suddenly become a priority because, had it been passed into law already, the child in question would not have likely been hurt or killed.  I don’t want to see this finally pass as a “CYA” move on the part of the Senate after it’s “embarrassed” by having let sit to the side for so long.

And, I don’t say this to belittle the incredible burden that the Senate bears.  The issues that our federal government has to contend with are all very important and great in number.  Prioritizing them is hard because there are so many time-sensitive, critical issues that all need to be dealt with yesterday.

That’s why our input is necessary as constituents.  Unless our elected officials understand how important this is to all of us, it’s not a squeaky enough wheel and they’re not going to get around to greasing it right away.  If you have your own personal stories of inappropriate seclusion and restraint, share them with your state’s senators so that they understand what a priority this issue is.

Click here to download the podcast version of this article.

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