Does it surprise you to know that there is no federal law around the use of restraint and seclusion in schools across the United States? Does it surprise you to know that children are injured, traumatized, and die being restrained and secluded in schools in the United States every year? Does it surprise you to know that there are far better things that we can be doing to support children in our schools?
In case you are not familiar with restraint and seclusion, they are crisis management strategies used in many schools across the nation and the world. Physical restraint is exactly what it sounds like, it is a personal restriction that immobilizes or reduces the ability of a student to move his or her torso, arms, legs, or head freely. Seclusion is the involuntary confinement of a student alone in a room or area from which the student is physically prevented from leaving. These interventions are dangerous and have led to serious injuries and even death in students, teachers, and staff.
You may wonder why there is no federal law related to the use of restraint and seclusion in schools. After all, there are laws related to the use of restraint and seclusion in medical and law enforcement settings. As you learn about how children with disabilities, Black and brown children are disproportionately restrained and secluded you might think this is a civil rights issue. You would be correct, and civil rights should not vary from state to state. We need a federal law to protect the civil and human rights of our most vulnerable, our children. So let’s explore a little history here to understand where we are and why something must change.
In 2009 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report titled “Selected Cases of Death and Abuse at Public and Private Schools and Treatment Centers.” The report cited the use of restraints and seclusions in schools and documented cases where students were pinned to the floor for hours at a time, handcuffed, locked in closets, and subjected to other acts of violence. In some of these cases, the report stated, this type of abuse resulted in death. The 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. It’s been over 10 years since that report was published and we still have no federal law in place protecting children from these abuses.
On December 9, 2009, the Preventing Harmful Restraint and Seclusion in Schools Act, HR 4247 was introduced by Congressman George Miller (D-CA) and Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA). A companion bill was also introduced in the Senate by Senator Chris Dodd and is numbered S 2860. This legislation would have banned the use of mechanical and chemical restraints, restraints that impede breathing, and aversives that compromise health and safety, and using restraint and seclusion for “educational disruptions.” This bill passed in the House and died in committee in the United States Senate. As a result, today children continue to be injured, traumatized, and die. In the years that followed five additional attempts to pass legislation also died in committee.
In 2012 the United States Department of Education released guidance for schools related to the use of restraint and seclusion. The report titled, “The restraint and seclusion: resource document” said that every effort should be made to prevent the need for the use of restraint and seclusion. The guidance went on to suggest that physical restraint or seclusion should not be used except in situations where the child’s behavior poses an imminent danger of serious physical harm to self or others and other interventions are ineffective and should be discontinued as soon as imminent danger of serious physical harm to self or others has dissipated. This suggests a life or death standard for the use of restraint and seclusion. While many states have used the guidance to inform their laws, many did not, and children continue to suffer injuries, lifelong trauma, and death.
In 2016 United States Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) issued a Dear Colleague Letter to provide guidance to the states on the use of restraint and seclusion and how it can impact the civil rights of students. Specifically, the guidance was to inform school districts how the use of restraint and seclusion may result in discrimination against students with disabilities. The guidance stated that the use of restraint or seclusion may have a traumatic impact on a student, that even if she were never again restrained or secluded, she might nevertheless have new academic or behavioral difficulties that, if not addressed promptly, could constitute a denial of FAPE. Yet despite the guidance, children continue to suffer injuries, lifelong trauma, and death.
In 2019, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released guidance to the United States Department of Education stating that the department should take immediate action to address inaccuracies in federal restraint and seclusion data. GAOs’ review found that data the Department of Education (Education) uses in its enforcement of civil rights laws does not accurately or completely reflect all incidents of restraint and seclusion of public school students. School districts are required to report restraint and seclusion use in Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection every 2 years. The most recent data shows 70% of districts reported zero incidents, resulting in inaccurate data. Restraint and seclusion use can result in death, yet schools across the nation are not accurately reporting data. GAO found that not all incidents are reported, and 9 districts with over 100,000 students reported zeros in error.
The impact of restraint and seclusion
Restraint and seclusion are used disproportionately on students with disabilities, Black and brown students, and boys. Elementary school students are more likely to be restrained or secluded. Children who are placed in more restrictive settings are more likely to be restrained and secluded. Children with a trauma background are more likely to be restrained and secluded.
According to the most recent data (2017-18 school year) from the Office of Civil Rights, disabled students are restrained and secluded more often.
Students with disabilities account for 13% of all students, but 80% of students are restrained and 77% of students secluded.
Black students are disproportionately restrained and secluded. The chart here shows the percentage distribution of students subjected to restraint and seclusion by race.
Restraint and seclusion are aversive interventions that are used by school personnel in crisis management situations to manage behaviors of concern. These interventions lead to trauma in students, teachers, and staff. These interventions can lead to serious injuries to students, teachers, and staff. Sadly, too many children have even died being physically restrained.
Deaths due to restraint and seclusion
Sadly many children have died being restrained and secluded in schools and residential facilities across the nation. The 2009 GAO report acknowledged that hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and death related to the use of restraint and seclusion on school children had occurred in the preceding two decades. Why then are children continuing to die? Why has there not been the political will to pass legislation to save the lives of children. Below are a few of the children we have forever lost due to these dangerous and inhumane practices.
Xavier Hernandez, who had autism, went to Boulevard Heights, a school in the Fort Worth district for disabled students. In 2021 teachers at Boulevard Heights restrained Hernandez later that day he died. Months after the incident, his grieving family found no one who would tell them what happened that day.
Cornelius Frederick, 16, died in a hospital two days after staff members at Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo, which houses children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, tackled Cornelius and restrained him for 12 minutes, allegedly for throwing a sandwich on April 29th, 2020. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide.
On November 28th, 2018, 13-year-old boy Max Benson died as a result of being held in a prone physical restraint by the staff at his now-defunct Guiding Hands School in El Dorado County. Benson was held in a prone restraint for an extended period of time and was forced to urinate on himself and vomit.
Corey Foster died after being restrained by school staff members for allegedly refusing to leave the basketball court at the Leake & Watts school for students with special needs in New York in 2012. The autopsy ruled Corey’s death an accident due to “cardiac arrest during excited state while being subdued.”
Seven-year-old Angelika Arndt died in 2006 after being suffocated while in a face-down restraint hold performed by staff members at the Rice Lake Day Treatment Center in Wisconsin, where she received academic assistance and therapy for a variety of psychological and developmental problems.
The seclusion room in Jonathan King’s north Georgia special education school was something akin to a prison cell – a concrete room latched from the outside, its tiny window obscured by a piece of paper. In November 2004, Jonathan King hanged himself with a cord in the school seclusion room.
Michael Renner-Lewis III was a 15-year-old autistic student that was killed on his first day of high school in 2003 when he was restrained face-down by several staff members at Parchment High School in Michigan after he became agitated following a seizure. His mother, Elizabeth Johnson, sued the school district and settled the case.
Keeping All Students Safe Act 2021-2022
The Keeping All Students Safe Act (KASSA) is the latest effort to pass federal legislation related to the use of restraint and seclusion in schools in the United States. The Keeping All Students Safe Act would make it illegal for any school receiving federal taxpayer money to seclude children and would ban dangerous restraint practices that restrict children’s breathing, such as prone or supine restraint. The bill would also prohibit schools from physically restraining children, except when necessary to protect students and staff. More specifically the legislation would do the following.
1) Establish minimum safety standards in schools by:
- Prohibiting seclusion, mechanical restraints, chemical restraints, physical restraint that restricts breathing or is life-threatening, and any form of aversive behavioral intervention;
- Requiring certification of staff conducting physical restraint that meets the minimum standards;
- Prohibiting physical restraint as a planned intervention; and
- Requiring parental notification and follow-up meetings if a physical restraint occurs.
2) Support states by providing better training to ensure student and staff safety and establishing monitoring and enforcement systems by:
- Requiring each state to have its own policies, procedures, monitoring, and enforcement systems in place to meet the minimum standards within two years of the law’s enactment;
- Providing grant funding for states to establish, implement, and enforce the policies and procedures required by the law; and
- Improving state and local capacity to analyze the data and improve school climate and culture.
3) Increase transparency, oversight, and enforcement to prevent future abuse and death by:
- Requiring states to collect and report data on the use of seclusion and restraint annually; and
- Making data about restraint and seclusion publicly available while protecting student privacy, including data on the number of incidents, injuries, cases of death, and the demographic breakdown.
It is past due for Congress to act. We need to take action and demand change. We need to get this critical legislation passed.
Take Action: What you can do!
Now is the time to take action! There are many things you can do to support the Keeping All Students Safe Act. The important thing is that you do something.
2) Use this simple form from the National Disability Rights Network to Tell Congress to End Harsh Discipline of Students and Target Resources to Train School Staff.
3) Call your House Representative and Senators and ask them to support The Keeping All Students Safe Act. Call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and ask for your representative’s office.
4) If your organization wants to endorse the Keeping All Students Safe Act, please contact both Phoebe Ball (Chair Scott) and Sarah Mueller (Chair Murray) and offer your support for the bill.
5) Support the efforts of the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint. Your donation helps us promote a trauma-informed, neuroscience-aligned, relationship-driven approach to supporting all children.
We can and must do better for our schools. We can make our schools safer for students, teachers, and staff while reducing and eliminating the use of restraint and seclusion.