A question we occasionally get here at the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint is if not seclusion and restraint then what do you do when you’re getting physically assaulted by students?
To begin, we don’t believe that seclusion is ever an appropriate response. To be clear, we define seclusion as a situation where a child is forced into a room or area, alone, against their will, and prohibited from leaving. We are not referring to a self-directed break to a quiet space or even a sensory room. There is nothing calming or therapeutic about being locked in a room by yourself. It is terrifying. When kids are forced into a seclusion room, they often scream to get out and bang on the doors. They may even urinate or defecate while secluded, a trauma response. If the screams go unanswered, they might eventually slump against the wall and put their heads down. At this point, their brain begins to shut down, and their bodies go into survival mode. They may even enter into a dissociative state.
The use of seclusion is likely to lead to an increase in stress-related behaviors. Seclusion should never be used on children.
We believe that the use of restraint should be exceedingly rare. The federal guidance in the United States on physical restraint says that restraint should only be used in an emergency when other less restrictive interventions have failed, and it is necessary to prevent “imminent serious physical harm” to the student or others. “Imminent serious physical harm” is a potentially life-threatening situation. We believe that the only time physical restraint should be considered is if it is necessary to save a life. We don’t believe prone or supine restraint should ever be used, as these methods can restrict breathing and lead to death. On November 28th, 2018, a 13-year-old autistic student, Max Benson, was killed due to being held in a prone restraint at his school because he kicked a wall. On April 29th, 2020, Cornelius Frederick was restrained in a face-down prone position after throwing a sandwich in his school’s cafeteria. Two days later, he died due to injuries caused by the restraint.
We often hear scenarios about children who are as big if not bigger than staff. Interestingly enough, the children who are most often restrained and secluded are very young (5, 6, 7, and 8 years old) and most often disabled, Black, or brown. Children with a trauma history are also more likely to be physically restrained and secluded. In many schools, children are routinely restrained and secluded not for situations that involve imminent serious physical harm but rather for noncompliance, disrespect, work refusal, and minor behaviors. Restraint and seclusion can lead to trauma, injury, and even death. In 2009 the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted research and found hundreds of alleged abuse and death cases related to the use of physical restraint.
If we acknowledge that children have died being physically restrained, we know that the use of physical restraint is the use of potentially deadly force. The question becomes, when do you use physical restraint on a disabled seven-year-old?
Back to the question if not seclusion and restraint then what do you do when you’re getting physically assaulted by students? I suggest as possible you move upstream. You begin with understanding the child’s needs and providing appropriate accommodations and support. You evaluate the child’s environment to see what might be leading to distress. You understand that behavior is communication. You become proactive and focus not on crisis management, but rather how to avoid crisis situations. There are far better ways to work with children, even children whose behavior may at times escalate. It is possible to reduce and eliminate dangerous restraint and seclusion practices while ensuring student, teacher, and staff safety.
Currently, there is proposed federal legislation, the Keeping All Students Safe Act (HR 3474), which would prohibit seclusion, prone restraint, and supine restraint. Changes are coming. In October 2019, parents filed a lawsuit against one of the largest school districts in the United States, Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. The lawsuit alleged that the district discriminated against students with disabilities in its use of restraint and seclusion and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. In December 2021, The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division announced a settlement agreement with the Frederick County Public School District in Maryland to address the discriminatory use of seclusion and restraint against students with disabilities. Actions like these are increasing across the country, now is the time to be proactive.
The time for change is now!