Restraint and Seclusion: Where is the Outrage?

The harmful practices of seclusion and restraints have been in the public eye and before Congress and state Departments of Education for over 20 years.  There has been a sense of urgency for every parent whose child has been impacted, for advocacy groups and for legislators who have worked diligently to create changes, including through federal legislation.  But at the end of 2019, children continue to be harmed, traumatized, punished for minor infractions, punished for manifestations of their disabilities, suffer serious injuries (broken bones, concussions), criminalized, and even killed.  Though bills have been introduced in Congress over the past 10 years, none have been passed.  Where is the outrage?

In January 2009, the National Disability Rights Network reported the following concerning restraint and seclusion in schools:

Whenever we open a newspaper, turn on the television, or go on the Internet these days, we hear about another child dying or being injured in school while being restrained or secluded.  Some may think these are isolated incidents, but, when Protection and Advocacy (P&A) agencies across this country report that school children have been killed, confined, tied up, pinned down, and battered, this is clearly more than an isolated issue – it is one of national concern.   

Download the report

After years of struggle by parents and advocates, the educational rights of children with disabilities was, at least by law, firmly established in 1978 with implementation of the Education for the Handicapped Act (EHA), the precursor to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  This promise of a free, appropriate, and public education has expanded the opportunities for full inclusion of students with disabilities.  Yet today, many parents still face major challenges in obtaining full access to the education system their children are entitled to. 

Unfortunately, a disturbing trend is emerging that threatens to deny these students the full and safe inclusion in the education system so vital to their success as adults in our society.  

This epidemic is not a failure of the principles of IDEA, it is not the failure of parents, and it is certainly not a failure of students with disabilities. It is a failure of the education system – federal, state, and local – to address the needs of students with disabilities.

This report identifies the abusive use of restraint or seclusion nationwide by school administrators, teachers, and auxiliary personnel, which has resulted in injury and trauma and, in far too many cases, death to children with disabilities.  Furthermore, because there is no mandated system in place to report or collect data on these abuses, this report is clearly just the tip of the iceberg. 

Swift action to ban the use of prone restraint and seclusion in schools, and increased teacher training will eliminate unintentional tragedies.  It is the hope of the National Disability Rights Network that calling attention to this pervasive problem will spur action on the local, state, and national levels to address this crisis immediately.

Curtis Decker, JD. Executive Director

The May 2009 Seclusions and Restraints Report from the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) found no federal laws restricting the use of seclusion and restraints in public and private schools and widely divergent laws at the state level.  

In 2010, the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) Issued a follow up to the 2009 School is Not Supposed to Hurt Report. In the introduction to this report, the executive director of the NDRN applauded the actions that had been taken in the course of the year. 

The Preventing Harmful Restraint and Seclusion in Schools Act (H.R. 4247) was the first national effort to address abuse of children in schools and ensure the safety of everyone involved – both students and school staff. It would establish minimum safety standards in schools and increase transparency and oversight. HR4247 was first proposed in 2009.   In this 2010 YouTube video, you can hear Representative Miller urging colleagues to vote for the legislation. Unfortunately the bill did not pass.  Where is the outrage?

“In 1998 we had a national discussion, exposé about many of the same behaviors that are going on today.  It’s 12 years later and children are still being abused, dramatically abused.”

Representative Miller

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education developed a Restraint and Seclusion: Resource Document that described 15 principles for States, school districts, schools, parents, and other stakeholders to consider when developing or revising policies and procedures on the use of restraint and seclusion. The principles make clear that restraint or seclusion should never be used except in situations where a child’s behavior poses imminent danger of serious physical harm to self or others, and restraint and seclusion should be avoided to the greatest extent possible without endangering the safety of students and staff. These principles stressed that every effort should be made to prevent the need for the use of restraint and seclusion and that any behavioral intervention must be consistent with the child’s rights to be treated with dignity and to be free from abuse.  

Download the document

In 2014, The U.S. Department of Education developed Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline. The forward to this document states: …schools must understand their civil rights obligations and strive to ensure fairness and equity for all students by continuously evaluating the impact of their discipline policies and practices on all students using data and analysis. 

States are revising discipline laws to enhance local discretion, curtail zero-tolerance requirements, and encourage the development of alternative disciplinary approaches such as restorative justice.  At the district level, reforms have included adding social and emotional learning to curricula, implementing positive behavioral intervention and support frameworks, building and sustaining community partnerships, replacing suspension rooms with learning centers, and assembling intervention teams to help struggling students and their families. ED has identified three guiding principles for policymakers, district officials, school leaders, and stakeholders to consider as they work to improve school climate and discipline:  (1) Create positive climates and focus on prevention;  (2) Develop clear, appropriate, and consistent expectations and consequences to address disruptive student behaviors; and  (3) Ensure fairness, equity, and continuous improvement. 

In Exclusion, Seclusion and Restraint: The Grandma Testa PowerPoint created in 2014 by Larry Wexler, Director of the Research to Practice Division of the U.S. Department of Education, the following was reported: 

  • Restraint and seclusion have become a convenient means of disciplining students for behaviors that do not put student or classroom safety at risk (Government Accountability Office, 2009). 
  • There is no evidence that using restraint or seclusion is effective in reducing the occurrence of the problem behaviors that precipitate the use of such techniques (U.S. Department of Education, 2012). 
  • Students with disabilities disproportionately suffer death, injury, and trauma when subjected to restraint and seclusion (Butler, 2013). 
  • Restraint and seclusion are disproportionately used on students with disabilities (Office for Civil Rights, 2014).

Recommendations were made for prevention, multi-tiered systems of support, trauma informed care, culturally sensitive practices, unpacking the data, and changing adult behavior.  An alternative to restraint and seclusion was presented showing the significant reduction in restraints, elimination of seclusion, significant reduction of staff injuries, staff time off and staff turnover, and improvement in staff and student morale and significant savings for the organization over 4 years.

The Department of Education firmly believes that one case of inappropriate use of restraint or seclusion is one case too many.  

U. S. Department of Education

On December 28, 2016, the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague Letter about Restraint and Seclusion for Students with Disabilities. This document was developed to address concerns arising from the disproportionate rate of seclusion and restraint of students with disabilities.  The document includes a series of questions and answers intended to help clarify the law and the process required to assure that children are not penalized for behaviors that are a manifestation of their disability.  A Fact sheet about Restraint and Seclusion of Students with Disabilities was released at the same time. 

On November 14, 2018, Representative Don Beyer, D-VA, introduced H.R. 7124 Keeping all Students Safe bill. It did not move forward to the Senate in 2018.  Where is the outrage? 

The following was contained In a February 25, 2019 letter from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) submitted for consideration at the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education’s hearing on “Classrooms in Crisis: Examining the Inappropriate Use of Seclusion and Restraint Practices.”   

The practice of restraining and secluding schoolchildren is not new and has been implicated in countless and often ongoing cases of severe, pervasive, and traumatic abuse across the country. Despite numerous studies, investigations, and governmental hearings at the state and federal level, too many of our schoolchildren continue to be subjected to actions by teachers, administrators, and other school personnel that threaten their health and safety. Over the years, we have become aware of the horrifying stories that pierced the public’s consciousness—stories of children being locked in closets, arms bound in handcuffs behind their back or even suffocating to death from inappropriate use of force. Even when these techniques are used in less dramatic fashion, children often experience lifelong trauma. And the alarming truth is that most incidents of restraint and seclusion occur in the shadows, with impunity, and far from public or even parental view. Indeed, a large percentage of school districts reported no data on students being subject to restraint and seclusion—despite parent reports of horrific abuses

The effects include substantial and disproportionate physical and emotional injuries and disruptive exclusions from the educational process. The use of unnecessary restraint and seclusion by federally funded schools—either directly or through contractual arrangements with private special education schools—has no pedagogical basis, discriminates against students with disabilities, and impairs the educational objectives of public schools with respect to children with disabilities. Often, restraint and seclusion are carried out because of inadequate teacher training, a desire to punish a student on the part of school personnel, or bias against students with disabilities, students of color or those students who fall into both categories. This is not how we should treat our children. They deserve better.

A national response is necessary and long overdue. The Keeping All Students Safe Act (KASSA) would provide much needed protections for all students, and particularly those disproportionately impacted by these practices.

American Civil Liberties Union

Creating safer, more positive and supportive learning environments requires addressing the entire spectrum of counterproductive and excessively harsh punishments that disproportionately affect our country’s most vulnerable students—most often low-income students, students with disabilities, and students of color. Eliminating the use of seclusion and drastically reducing the use of restraints in our schools is a critical component of that effort.

In October 2019, the Civil Rights Principles for Safe, Healthy and Inclusive School Climates was published. This document, signed by 57 organizations includes the following 8 principles:

Principle 1. Ensure rights of students.

Principle 2. Encourage schools to implement comprehensive and supportive discipline practices.

Principle 3. Address childhood trauma.

Principle 4. Enhance protections against harassment and discrimination schools.

Principle 5. Ensure accountability through accurate and comprehensive data collection.

Principle 6. Invest in school infrastructures that support positive school climates.

Principle 7. Eliminate school- based law enforcement.

Principle 8. Eliminate threats to students’ health and safety (this includes corporal punishment, restraints, seclusion).

Where does all of this leave us? Lots of talk.  Lots of expensive meetings.  Lots of studies.  Lots of recommendations.  And students are still being restrained, secluded, hauled off to jail in handcuffs, and killed. Children as young as four years old, some for typical behaviors for their age.  Some for manifestations of their disabilities, some for behaviors that would be overlooked if they had a different skin color. All these students (who survive) are traumatized.  Children internalize the message that they are bad.  Brain development is adversely impacted.  Time is lost from education.

And who cares?  The children’s parents and friends and advocates.  Teachers and staff.  Who else cares? We treat animals better than we treat our children with disabilities and our children of color.  Where is the outrage?


  • Beth Tolley

    Beth retired in 2018 from a leadership position in Virginia’s lead agency for early intervention for infants and toddlers and is a mother, grandmother and advocate.

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