Casey was three and non-verbal. I had fought to get him into a preschool that was every day of the week, and for more time than the other special needs preschools in the area. I thought I had done right by him. By this time, I had three kids under the age of four, and was battling chronic pain. In the year that he was in that class, I had four surgeries and seen countless specialists all to no avail. I was overwhelmed and missed the signs.
Something wasn’t right. Casey is autistic and had always had a tough time with school. Transitions were tough. He screamed, cried, and melted down every day. We knew when we built his IEP. In some of the forms I had signed while we were getting him settled into school was one for the use of restraint and seclusion in times where Casey was in danger of hurting himself or someone else. I asked them what they had meant, and they showed me a little chair that would slide up to a table that had a little buckle over the lap. I was okay with that. I knew I couldn’t expect the teachers to be one on one with him when they had four other children with autism to attend to. I also knew that Casey could be explosive and I didn’t want him to harm another child or himself . I trusted that the teacher would only use these methods in the very rare even that nothing -and I mean NOTHING- else would work. His behavior escalated at school and at home. As things got continually worse at home, I figured it was my fault. I thought that he was picking up on my stress and my exhaustion. In pain every day, I couldn’t work with him the way he needed.
It wasn’t until the teacher of his preschool class went on maternity leave that I finally learned the truth about the situation. Casey wasn’t just being restrained by the chairs- that was benign compared to the seclusion. One of the aids finally confessed that the teacher had been locking him in what amounted to a storage closet for extended periods of time during the day. The day I found out my heart crumbled into a million tiny little pieces. I still ache when I think about it. There was very little recourse for the teacher. I had signed off on it. She wasn’t invited to come back after her maternity leave was over, and was thankfully replaced by one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. But there was no discipline. She didn’t lose her teaching license. She could very well be teaching students right now.
Teachers like these are the exception to the Special Education standard. Most teachers are amazing. But not all. Some are overwhelmed. Some are under-trained and some schools are significantly understaffed. Some should have never became teachers to begin with and aren’t fit to serve the most vulnerable students.
When we had Abby, the thought occurred to me that we were again facing a situation where my child wouldn’t be able to tell us what happened at school. Where if we did get one of the teachers that suck, we wouldn’t know it until it was too late. Until damage was done. That’s why last summer, along with the National Down Syndrome Congress, I pounded down the doors of my congresspeople in Washington DC, with these facts (Some have been updated to reflect changes that have been made on individual state levels over the past year):
- There is no one federal law that covers all students, instead, a ” patchwork of state laws, regulations, nonbinding guidelines, and even utter silence.” (Jennifer Butler, How Safe is the Schoolhouse)
- The use of restraint in schools has been attributed to the deaths of at least 20 students. Restraint is dangerous. The practice of restraint should be limited to only when there is a physical danger to students, and even then only after all other methods have been exhausted and only by someone trained in such techniques. Currently, only 18 states have laws that limit restraint to this in children with special needs, 13 for all children. Even worse, only 27 states have laws against using positions where breathing is compromised for people with disabilities, 20 for all children.
- Only one state bans the use of all seclusion for all children, 4 ban it for children with special needs specifically. Children locked in closets, bathrooms and other places (like the storage room Casey was locked inside) are frequently left there, unobserved, for long periods of time. Instances of children being killed, injured or traumatized have been reported. Lots of times, children are left in seclusion until unreasonable demands are met. In Casey’s case, he was left in there and told to “calm down.” He didn’t understand those words nor did he have the ability to self soothe or calm down on his own when his needs weren’t being met and definitely not in a place that was frightening to him.
- Only 20 states have laws requiring that parents be notified of the use of restraints or seclusion. So, if you’re not in one of those 20 states, this could go on without you even knowing.
Obviously, this is wrong. It’s wrong that most or our schools don’t have the same criteria for seclusion and restraints that hospitals and prisons have. When I asked my senators and representatives why they wouldn’t co-sponsor the bill, one of them said that the teacher’s unions didn’t want any more rules. This was after the bill was downgraded to a mandate- meaning it wouldn’t even be enforceable! States are working to enact regulations, and while some come close or even exceed the standard set out in a bill being introduced in the House, most are far from it. Some states have regulations and guidelines that aren’t binding, and then don’t go far enough to make sure that rules are being met. Fortunately all is not lost, a new bill has been introduced and it needs your support. Things have to change for our kids. There are things you can do now to protect your own child in their own school, and there are things you can do to affect change for all students.
So what can you do?
First, make sure your own children are protected. While we wait for laws to catch up to common sense, take the necessary steps to ensuring that your child is safe at school. Find out the laws in your state. If they don’t go far enough to protect your child, write provisions into their IEP. Written in Casey’s IEP is that the use of seclusion and restraints is never allowed. This wasn’t a hard thing to ask because the school doesn’t allow for it anyways. That being said, not all schools are like the one we are attending, and you need to know what behavioral plan is in place for your child. Follow up. If you think there might be a problem at school, go with your gut. Make sure you have a relationship with the teachers and paraeducators.
Sadly, in some cases, even this isn’t enough. In the past week three personal friends have had to fight the schools over abuse, and improper restraint and seclusion. This is why there needs to be federal laws that would help instances like these to not happen, and if they did, for teachers and schools to feel the full weight of the law.
Second, make sure ALL children are protected. These laws need to cover all children, both disabled and non disabled.
Please CALL your members of Congress and ask them to Cosponsor and Support the Keeping All Students Safe Act, HR 1893.
Dial 202-224-3121; ask for your Representative’s Office, and then ask for the education aide.
The keeping all Students Safe Act will:
The Keeping Students Safe Act will:
- ban restraint/seclusion except in emergencies where someone is in danger of physical harm
- require that parents be informed if their child was restrained/secluded on the same day that the event occurred
- ban restraints that impede breathing, mechanical restraints, and chemical restraints
- prevent restraint/seclusion from being used when less restrictive alternatives, like positive supports and de-escalation, would eliminate any danger
- require that if children are placed in seclusion rooms, school staff must continuously visually observe them
- ban dangerous aversive practices that threaten safety; require the collection of data; and require appropriate training of staff
For more information please visit: http://www.wrightslaw.com/info/abuse.index.htm
Be sure to read: http://www.wrightslaw.com/info/howsafeschoolhouse.may2013.pdf, which is where most of the figures in this post are found.
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