The United States Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) released its report Seclusions and Restraints: Selected Cases of Death and Abuse at Public and Private Schools and Treatment Centers in May 2009. As Congress contemplates new federal legislation to contend with this societal atrocity, we thought it was pertinent to review GAO’s findings and remind ourselves why this is so important.
Examples of Case Studies GAO Examined:
|Male, 14, diagnosed with post traumatic stress
||Texas public school
||– 230 lb. teacher placed 129 lb. child face down on floor and lay on top of him because he did not stay seated in class, causing his death.- Death ruled a homicide but grand jury did not indict teacher. Teacher currently teaches in Virginia.
|Female, 4, born with cerebral palsy and diagnosed as autistic
||West Virginia public school
||– Child suffered bruising and post traumatic stress disorder after teachers restrained her in a wooden chair with leather straps described as resembling a miniature electric chair for being uncooperative.-School board found liable for negligent training and supervision; teachers were found not liable, and one still works at the school.
|Five victims, gender not disclosed, aged 6 and 7
||Florida public school
||– Volunteer teacher’s aide, on probation for burglary and cocaine possession, gagged and duct-taped children for misbehaving.- No records that school did background check or trained aide.
– Aide pled guilty to false imprisonment and battery.
|Male, 9, diagnosed with a learning disability
||New York public school
||– Parents allowed school to use time out room only as a last resort, but school put child in room repeatedly for hours at a time for offenses such as whistling, slouching, and hand waving.- Mother reported that the room smelled of urine and child’s hands became blistered while trying to escape.- Jury awarded family $1,000 for each time child was put in the room.
Just to be clear, these are not isolated incidents. GAO tracked hundreds of cases for the purposes of its report, which you can read in full by clicking here.
Back during the 2002-2003 school year, when our founder, Nyanza Cook, was researching how to start a non-profit advocacy organization, she received a phone call one night from her family in Texas. They knew that she was looking to start what has since become KPS4Parents and wanted to let her know of something that had happened in their local community near Ft. Hood. As much as she had her own motivations for starting our organization based on what her own household here in California had been put through, the story from her family back in Texas pretty much clenched it.
Her nephew, who was a special education student placed in a special day class at the time, was put on the phone with her, clearly distraught. She asked him what was going on and his reply was, “They killed him, Auntie! They killed him!”
After speaking with him and other family members, this is what she got: another special education student in her nephew’s class had become non-compliant that day and unable to focus on his school work. In an effort to compel him to stay on task and comply with adult directives, school site staff withheld food from him, refusing to let him go to lunch until he completed a task he’d been requested to complete.
Somewhere around 2pm, he decided he was hungry and was going to find food whether the adults in the room liked it or not. When he attempted to leave the room, he was tackled to the ground by staff who piled on top of him. According to Nyanza’s nephew, he gasped a few times that he couldn’t breathe and then fell silent.
When he stopped struggling, staff climbed off of him only to find him limp and lifeless. He wasn’t breathing. Staff ended up calling 911 and attempted to resuscitate him. His classmates looked on in horror throughout the entire incident, including Nyanza’s nephew.
A friend of Nyanza’s family was an emergency room doctor at the hospital where this young man was transported. He later reported to her that the school district’s lawyer got to the hospital just before or at the same time the ambulance did and did everything he could to try and convince the hospital to call time of death subsequent to the young man’s body’s arrival at the hospital when, in truth, he’d died on school grounds and emergency personnel had not been able to revive him. Nyanza’s emergency room doctor friend was indignant that the lawyer had even dared to ask.
None of this made it into the local news. Nyanza’s family didn’t know this young man’s family personally and before too long, the whole thing had been swept under the rug. It’s unknown if the District settled with the boy’s family or what became of the teachers involved in the incident. However, after reading Case #2 of the GAO report (the first case cited in the table above), the similarities are uncannily eerie and I have to wonder if it isn’t the same case.
Nyanza’s nephew was terrified to go back to school for fear that he would be killed, too. He was understandably traumatized. That is an aspect of the harm done when seclusions and restraints are used in the school setting: the emotional impact on the children who witness take-downs and adults physically manhandling other children. That’s probably worth a study in and of itself.
What the GAO report makes clear is that this was hardly an isolated incident. But, the taxpaying public does not finance the public education system so that it can kill children; the public education system is supposed to be educating children.
At the time of the May 2009 report, there were no federal laws regulating the use of seclusions and restraints in public or private schools.? There are no such federal laws today, though legislation has been proposed. State laws were at the time of the report, and still are, highly divergent.
GAO reported that almost all of the hundreds of cases of the use of seclusion and restraint in school settings that its research uncovered involved children with disabilities. GAO found that there was no national effort to specifically collect data and track the use of seclusions and restraints in the school setting, requiring it to conduct exhaustive research in order to identify cases of such. It wasn’t that the cases hadn’t been reported, but the way that data was collected by the involved agencies resulted in the seclusion and restraint cases getting mixed in with many other different types of cases, requiring GAO investigators to go through each case to individually identify which ones involved seclusions and restraints in the school setting.
When I first got involved in special education advocacy, I was working with families of children with dyslexia who weren’t receiving adequate reading instruction and kids with ADHD who needed IEP supports to help them with their organizational skills. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d end up working cases of where:
- An 8-year-old nonverbal boy with autism who loved to play “chase” would do what the adults around him mistook for elopement but was actually his way of initiating a “chase” game, only to be tackled to the ground by his principal on a gravel driveway in an effort to prevent the child from leaving the campus (which he wasn’t actually trying to do), resulting in significant bruising to they boy’s chest.
- A 14-year-old mostly nonverbal boy with autism who became non-compliant with staff directives when his teacher unexpectedly left early for the day (which had not been part of his visual schedule and, thus, he’d been unable to predict), resulting in an unlawful restraint in which a large male staff member twisted the boy’s arm behind his back and broke it, causing nerve damage and requiring surgery to repair.
- A 15-year-0ld boy with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (from having witnessed his father’s suicide) who was directed into a time-out room alone with his male ESY teacher (an aide on a 30-day emergency teaching credential), who then compelled the student to perform oral sex upon him behind a locked door.
- An 8-year-old boy with autism and mild mental retardation who received special education transportation services on a large bus filled mostly with emotionally disturbed children being transported to an ED program on the same campus where his learning handicapped class was located, only to be forced to regularly orally copulate a male ED peer in the back of the bus in the absence of a transportation aide and out of sight of the bus driver.
The latter case was peer-on-peer violence, but it was the lack of appropriate supervision that allowed it to happen. Passiveness on the part of adults can result in just as much harm as outright aggression.
The point is that children with disabilities are at a higher risk of being preyed upon and victimized by people who should know better or peers who themselves are not receiving adequate intervention. This continues in one form or another into adulthood where cognitively impaired adults are put up to committing crimes they don’t understand so that other people will “like them” or are taken advantage of by scam artists and are economically abused. Women with mental disabilities can easily end up in the sex trade.
What is really scary is when a person with mental deficiencies is repeatedly exposed to violence and learns through experience to behave violently him- or herself. Trying to unteach that learning when the person has reached adulthood after a lifetime of inappropriate, violent behavior, can only be achieved through very time-consuming, involved, and usually very costly, direct instruction. The long-term consequences of seclusion and restraint are far-reaching and devastating.