Gaslighting: How School districts justify the use of restraint and seclusion

Today’s guest author is Robin Roscigno. Robin Roscigno is a scholar/practicioner specializing in education for Neurodivergent children. She is a PhD candidate at Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Education and consults with school districts and parents on a range of topics. Most recently, Robin was awarded the Irving K. Zola Award for Emerging Scholar in Disabiliy Studies from the Society for Disability Studies for her article “Semiotic Stalemate: Resisting Restraint and Seclusion through Guattari’s Micropolitics of Desire” which combined her scholarly interests with her anti-restraint and seclusion activism.


Robin Roscigno

Introduction 

Over the summer of 2019, in the New Jersey town of Vernon, administrators, community members and board members were weighing in on the passage of a district policy on restraint and seclusion of students with disabilities. Tensions were high, and the vote had already been delayed once. The heated debate attracted the media attention, as parents and advocates shared stories about the restraint or seclusion of their children and its detrimental effects on them. The meetings were in response to a recently passed NJ law that purportedly provides guidance, oversight and regulation for school districts on the practices of restraint and seclusion in schools; practices that were previously the proverbial Wild West of special education—a largely unregulated and secret arena known only to some. Conversations continue to be held all over the state of New Jersey as parents and educators seek to understand how to implement the specifics of the law. And while the details of this specific case are important, in many ways Vernon is an EveryTown, as new laws are passed in states that previously lacked and official guidance on the restraint and seclusion. The specific responses by school officials are almost banal in their predictability. For example, Nicole Wells reported on the issue in The Advertiser News, Vernon’s local paper. She paraphrases Hardyston Township Schools Chief School Administrator stating, “Far from the nightmarish conjuring of parental imaginations, restraint and seclusion are behavioral-modification techniques that the state has indicated can be used on students with disabilities in an emergency situation, if they are considered a danger to themselves or others, Ryder said.” There are familiar elements to this response that can be seen in other defenses of restraint and seclusion, namely the accusation of parents over-stating the harm done to their children or implying parents simply do not understand the scientific and educational merits of these harmless “procedures.”  

However, data compiled by the Governmental Accountability Office in 2009 on injuries and deaths related to restraint and seclusion undermines the neutrality of these “procedures” in no uncertain terms.  

The GAO has also recently testified that restraint and seclusion are grossly underreported.  This leaves parents in a precarious position. When school officials believe that restraint and seclusions are necessary, or worse, therapeutic, how do parents keep their children safe?  

What is restraint?  

In the current debate, most often schools are referring to physical restraint, or the process of immobilizing a child’s body or reducing the ability of an individual to move his or her arms, legs, body, or head freely.  Staff are often sent to 3rd party trainings that focus on de-escalation, crisis management and restraint “techniques.”  In New Jersey’s new R&S law, a specific type of restraint called “prone restraint,” or restraining a child with their chest on the ground, is prohibited except when schools obtain permission from the child’s physician.  Within the law, restraint is restricted to situations where a child is a danger to themselves or others, however, with no concrete definition of what harm is or the level of “harm” that constitutes an emergency, the application is still largely subjective and the burden of proof rests on the families, many of whom have children with significant communication barriers.  Parents are required to receive notification and a “report” from the district; however, the level of detail and specifics of the report are unspecified in the law.  Additionally, the law provides no indication on how long a child can be restrained, how many times, or if they are to receive medical or psychological care following an instance of restraint. 

The idea that restraint is a neutral, scientific procedure comes from research in behavior analysis, the fringe arm of psychology based on Skinner’s research on operant conditioning, or the science of manipulating the environment (through rewards and punishments) to produce desired behaviors. 

Behaviorism is particularly interested in the observable, hence its claim to experimental control of behavior. Much like other types of scientific experimentation, when an observable change in behavior is recorded, the goal is considered accomplished. Skinner’s followers began using restraint as a punishment (or release from restraint as a reward) as a method of increasing desired behaviors in the 1960’s and continued research on restraint is published in behaviorist publications. However, behaviorism fundamentally rejects “mentalism” or the internal lives of people and has had a contentious relationship with branches of psychology more interested in the internal lives, feelings, and psychic states of students.  Cognitive psychology and behaviorism have had a particularly tense relationship.  Despite having lukewarm support from other branches of psychology, behaviorism has had very quick success in schools, particularly for students with disabilities.  Many of the special education processes required by law rely on behaviorist premises, such as Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) and Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS).  Within these contexts, rewards and consequences are simply “procedures” and have a neutral or net-positive effect.  

However, as schools move towards a trauma-centered or restorative-justice approach, the idea that restraint is a neutral scientific procedure seems increasingly naïve.

This is especially true in New Jersey’s new law, which requires no counseling or emotional care for children who are restrained, or for teachers who may be required to restraint children, despite moral objection.  

Seclusion has similarly been introduced as a harmless procedure to schools and is referred to as a “procedure” in the new state law.  Seclusion is often used to “extinguish” attention-seeking behaviors by reducing or eliminating attention from peers or staff.   The law does not provide any regulation or guidance on the specifications of the room—including lighting, access to water, food or a bathroom.  Additionally, time limits have not been imposed and unlike restraint, there is no mandate to report to parents.  

Are parents overreacting? 

As in the case of Vernon, parents who speak out against restraint and seclusion are often patronized and treated as if they do not understand the ultimately beneficent nature of these “procedures.”  However, sufficient data exists to worry parents.  Last year, a 13-year-old student with Autism, Max Benson, suffocated to death while being restrained in his private school for students with disabilities.  The Government Accountability Office compiled data in 2009 on 10 selected restraint-related deaths of students with disabilities that resulted in criminal convictions and found that children with disabilities were often restrained in cases where they were not physically aggressive, and teachers and staff were often not trained.  Many parents seek legal representation to remove students from educational placements where their children are being routinely restrained or secluded. 

According to data from the Civil Rights Data Collection, 122,000 students across the country were restrained or secluded during the 2015-2016 school year.  Students with disabilities and black students are disproportionally restrained or secluded, with students at the intersection of blackness and disability as the most risk.  

While students with disabilities make up 12 percent of total school enrollment, they comprise 71 percent of students who were restrained and 66 percent of the students who were secluded.  Black students make up 15 percent of total enrollment, and yet represent 27 percent of those students subjected to restraint and 23 percent of those students who were secluded in school.  These are alarming statistics, and considering that the GAO has indicated that R&S is grossly underreported (some of the nation’s largest school districts reporting zero instances of R&S, for example) the problem is likely even more widespread and entrenched in special education.   

Gaslighting 

The dismissal of parents’ very well-placed concern is an example of gaslighting. Gaslighting is a form of manipulation where the manipulator purposefully tries to get someone to questions their own judgement, memory and/or perception of reality. Gaslighting is a common form of emotional abuse in intimate partner relationships, where one partner attempts to convince another that they are simply misinterpreting events, or that they didn’t actually understand what was occurring.  The term “gaslighting” comes from a 1938 play, Gaslight, where a husband manipulates his wife to make her think she’s actually losing her sense of reality so he can commit her to a mental institution and steal her inheritance.  In all forms of gaslighting, the victim is made to feel as if their perception is unreliable and forces them to question the validity of their claims.  Over time, gaslighting has detrimental effects, included an increased sense of anxiety, difficulty making decisions, and general lack of well-being.  

Like Vernon, parents who attempt to advocate against restraint and seclusion in their child’s classroom may be convinced they are overreacting, or don’t understand how essential restraint is for their child’s safety.

Parents may be labeled “difficult” and have increased difficulty managing an already bureaucratic institution. However, failing to see the neutrality in procedures that have not been evaluated for their emotional effects on children, only for their behavioral efficacy, is not an error in perception or judgement.  Parents who are concerned for their child’s physical and emotional safety should be able to trust their judgement in their observations, and not have their legitimate concerns reduced to “nightmarish conjurings of parental imagination.”  When it is an objective fact that children die in this country being restrained, the reality is nightmarish enough. 

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