Seclusion and Restraint in Schools: Michigan is Ready for Change

Today’s guest author is Cassie Atallah. 

Cassie Krause Atallah grew up in East Jordan, Michigan. She earned a Bachelor of Arts and Michigan Teaching Certificate from Hope College, a Master of Art Education from Western Michigan University, as well as a certificate in User Experience Design from UC San Diego (online). She taught Art at Hopkins High School for 10 years and worked as a user experience designer before turning her focus to homeschooling her Autistic son. 

Michigan Advocates to End Seclusion and Restraint (EndSaR)

Michigan is on the brink of some very powerful change when it comes to ending the practices of seclusion and restraint in schools.  

My name is Cassie Atallah, and I’m the cofounder and director of Michigan Advocates to End Seclusion and Restraint (EndSaR).  After my son experienced seclusion and restraint in kindergarten and 1st grade, he started exhibiting trauma symptoms, including hypervigilance, nightmares, school refusal, distorted memories of the events, and saying he wanted to die.  He inspired me to advocate to end seclusion and restraint practices in Michigan schools.  Here is the story of how we are working to create safer schools in Michigan for all students and educators.

The change related to seclusion and restraint in Michigan has been brewing for years.  I can’t tell you when it all started, but I can tell you that it was inspired 20 years ago by Michael Renner-Lewis III, who died as the result of physical restraint in school in 2003.  It was promoted by legislators in 2016 when a law was passed to restrict the use of seclusion and restraint.  It was rekindled by Cornelius Frederick, who died in 2020 as a result of physical restraint in school.  The change has been pushed forward by the traumatized children and their desperate parents who had nowhere to turn.  It has been influenced by self-advocates, who were secluded or restrained as children and now stand up against it.  The change has been supported by pediatricians, therapists, and teachers who know there is a better way.

Change in Michigan picked up speed when Lily Altavena, an education journalist from the Detroit Free Press, led an in-depth investigation of the improper use of seclusion and restraint in many schools around Michigan.  The resulting series highlighted stories of excessive use of seclusion and restraint, trouble accessing data, and schools that have made efforts to update to better practices. Also highlighted was a family who left Michigan to escape from the excessive use of seclusion, followed by their son’s success in schools that simply had a different mindset about behaviors and collaborating with students to find solutions.  

The Detroit Free Press articles told a story of significant problems in Michigan, and legislative leaders started listening.

Meanwhile, I started talking to Guy Stephens from the national organization the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint.  I had looked up their website many times since I pulled my son out of school because of the trauma and cycles of behavior problems resulting from his experiences.  It took two and a half years of therapy, and healing from my secondary trauma as a parent of a child who experienced seclusion and restraint before I was able to pick up the phone and tell Guy that I wanted to start an organization in Michigan to end the practices of seclusion and restraint in our state.  

It turns out that I wasn’t the first parent from Michigan to call with a similar story; I was at least the 10th. With the permission of the other nine brave parents and self-advocates who reached the point of calling a national organization, he gave me their contact information, and the Michigan group began meeting.  We came up with a name to call ourselves; Michigan Advocates to End Seclusion and Restraint (EndSaR).  Then, we started to work on a website:  Inspired by their stories and the injustice imposed on students whose behaviors are misunderstood, whose needs are chronically unmet, and who are suffering from the trauma that results from being secluded and restrained, we moved forward.  The lifelong trauma that often results from the loss of autonomy, which is inevitable when someone much bigger, stronger, and more powerful than you physically imposes their will upon you, is debilitating.  Combined with the feeling of being unheard, unseen, and misunderstood day after day by those who are supposed to be taking care of you, had an immense impact on our most vulnerable students.  It’s life-altering. 

One of the most frustrating things about this is that it’s completely unnecessary.  There are other options for dealing with crises to keep everyone safe and better ways of interacting with children that are more respectful, holistic, and humane.  These are strategies that, when used properly, consistently prevent many of the crisis situations in the first place.  

I can picture it.  I can imagine it.  I’ve seen adults doing it in other contexts, so I know it can be done in schools. 

I spent ten years as a teacher in a public school and then another ten years as the parent to an Autistic (PDA, 2e profile) child, more than 3 of which have been spent homeschooling.  My perspective on how we should treat children has significantly changed in the past 20 years.  I’ve learned the power of shared control, adult-child collaboration, and looking beyond behaviors to the underlying issues that are often body-based.  The deeper issues often have their roots in anxiety, trauma, or the absence of felt safety.  Developmental delays and sensory needs can be masked by strengths, making them very difficult to identify because they often look exactly the same as misbehavior, non-compliance, and even aggression.

Not only have I read books such as Beyond Behaviors by Mona Delahooke, The Explosive Child by Ross Greene, Self-Reg by Stuart Shanker, Listen by Patty Wipfler and Tosh Schore, Permission to Feel by Marc Brackett, and The Power of Showing Up by Daniel Seigel and Tina Payne Bryson but I’ve used the combined knowledge from these books over several years while home educating my child who had frequently been aggressive in a school environment with a more traditional, behaviorist approach.  I listened to my son’s therapists when they told me the school’s approach was inappropriate and causing trauma, I attended Tosha Schore’s Out with Aggression training and learned about Steven Porges’ Polyvagal Theory. I made my way through Perfectum Parent Toolbox to learn about Developmental, Individual-Differences, and Relationship-based (DIR®) approaches. I’m currently taking a class on Utilizing DIR® to Understand and Support Gifted and Twice-Exceptional Individuals.  When it comes to the task of understanding our neurodivergent children, we should never stop learning.

I’ve learned from Ross Greene that “Kids do well if they can,” so bad behavior isn’t about laziness, control issues, manipulation, or attention-seeking but rather about lagging skills and unsolved problems.  I’ve learned from Mona Delahooke that “We can’t truly help children with their behavior challenges without first helping ourselves to be present, self-aware, and calm.”  I didn’t just read these and blindly believe them; I tested them in the midst of aggressive meltdowns when more traditional, authoritative approaches would have come more naturally to me.  I came to know these things to be true, and I’m not alone.  Parent after parent, whose children have similar challenges, attest to the same discoveries.  Furthermore, Autistic adults, many of whom spent much of their lives being misunderstood and dealing with unhelpful discipline approaches as children, say the same things as they coach parents of Autistic children in support groups.

With this developing knowledge and a passionate group backing me up, I started picking up the phone.  I called schools that operated under entirely different philosophies from where my son had attended school.  I even went to visit some of them to see how it worked.  I called both of the candidates for state representative on the ballot for my district, Nancy DeBoer and Larry Jackson, to talk to them about the problems surrounding seclusion and restraint, as well as what I had learned about more appropriate and effective techniques.  I called organizations like Disability Rights Michigan and Michigan Alliance for Families.  I called the Michigan Education Association to ask them to put out a survey to teachers so that teacher voices could be heard in this discussion, and I called the Michigan Department of Education to ask about how we can improve data collection.  Several of our members made public comments at a Michigan Board of Education Meeting.  Two EndSaR members presented at the Michigan PTA Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee meeting.  Some of our members attended meetings of other organizations like Oakland Forward.  We joined coalitions like MiPAAC (Michigan Parent, Advocate, & Attorney Coalition) and the MEJC (Michigan Education Justice Coalition). We connected with Michigan’s Children, an organization that promotes public policies in the best interest of children and families in Michigan.  I even requested a meeting with Governor Whitmer, which I never got, but I did spend a long time talking to one of her staff members.  We wrote letters to our local districts.  Some of our members went to the police, and some filed lawsuits against their districts, while others felt the need to remain quiet to protect their children who were still attending the school where they were secluded or restrained. 

We learned that we are not alone. 

In fact, seclusion and restraint are on the agenda of many other advocacy organizations we contacted.  Many child advocates, parent groups, and grassroots education organizations have identified seclusion and restraint as an important issues to address.  We’ve met, we’ve listened, we’ve collaborated, and we’ve learned.

Now, we’re setting our sites higher; we are seeking legislative change.  The 2016 law had good intentions and set some important groundwork, but it’s not preventing seclusions and restraints as intended.  Michigan Schools have reported nearly 97,000 seclusions and restraints since it started collecting data in 2017, and this number is certainly lower than reality considering my son’s seclusion and restraints were never reported (his school reported 0 seclusions and 0 restraints in both years that he attended) and certainly, he’s not the only one.  In the first quarter of the 2022-2023 school year, Michigan schools reported 2,930 seclusions and restraints, 90% of which were used on students with disabilities, who comprise only 13.5% of the population.  That means that every school day in Michigan, approximately 65 seclusions and restraints take place.  It’s important to realize that the 598 children with disabilities experienced an average of almost 4.4 seclusions or restraints in the first quarter, once every ten days!!!  That is an average, which means it’s even more often for some of these kids.  These are not one-time, rare occurrences as the 2016 law intended.  This is a regularly occurring experience for these children, and it’s not a thing of the past.  It’s happening every day, right here, right now, and it has to stop.

How?  How do we do that?  Like many leaders in Michigan, we believe that change happens with a mindset shift; instead of asking how we can stop a behavior, we need to ask what the behavior is communicating about the needs of the child and how we can help.  This means moving away from behavior management and toward understanding and supporting nervous systems.  It’s comfort over control.  It’s connection over compliance.  For us, though, it’s not just a mindset shift for educators, but it’s a mindset shift for all of us; for our culture in general.  Why are seclusion and restraint happening in schools, what is it telling us about our approach to and funding of education in Michigan, and what can we do differently to help?

There are better ways to keep all students safe in school.

Using the Ukeru® systems, which is a hands-off system that gives students space while supporting them with comfort statements (as opposed to control statements), schools throughout the country have eliminated seclusion, nearly eliminated restraints, increased staff satisfaction rates, reduced staff injuries, and increased student achievement all at the same time.  

In some 2e (Twice Exceptional) schools and schools that use the Developmental, Individual-difference, Relationship-based (DIR®) model, there is a whole different approach to motivation, using the natural interests of the child, which reduces meltdowns in the first place.  In these schools, there is no place for rewards, which may seem to motivate children at first, but actually reduce intrinsic motivation in the long run and deteriorate adult-child relationships.  Reward and consequence-based models fail to leave space for empathy, individual needs, emotional health, and general happiness.  Keeping all students safe in more functional school systems starts long before a crisis even has a chance to develop.

These are just a few of the many relationship-based, child-centered, trauma-informed, and neuroscience-aligned approaches available to schools that can help eliminate the situations that lead to seclusion and restraint.

In March, EndSaR released a Position Statement that outlines our plan for ending seclusion and restraint in Michigan.  Our objective is to “Advocate to end the practices of seclusion and restraint in Michigan schools through student advocacy, teacher support, parent education, quality control, and legislative change.”  Our plan proposes funding for school facilities, staff, and training, as well as funding for state and ISD-level monitoring systems.  It proposes better data collection, a change to several definitions in Michigan’s law making all forms of involuntary seclusion illegal and further restricting when restraint would be considered appropriate.  Finally, it proposes parent education and guidelines for identifying and supporting at-risk students to prevent crises.

We don’t really know how this is all going to play out yet, but what we do know is that Michigan is ready for change.  Seclusion and restraint are dangerous and traumatic practices.  Not only is there no evidence that they are effective in reducing problem behaviors, but there is evidence of deteriorated student-teacher relationships, increased behavior problems, a decline in mental and emotional health, and that they can be a denial of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).  Because of the risk of damage to the physical, social, mental, and emotional health of both students and teachers: Involuntary seclusion should never be used in Michigan schools on any student for any reason, and restraint should only be used in life-threatening situations.  Extreme effort should be made to prevent life-threatening situations before they develop, and therefore, the use of restraint in Michigan schools should be exceptionally rare.  Michigan students have died due to emergency physical restraint by trained staff members and should therefore be regarded as potentially deadly force.  When is it appropriate to use potentially deadly force against a 5-year-old?  A 10-year-old?  A 15-year-old?  My child?  Your child?

  • Michigan students are ready for change.
  • Michigan parents are ready for change.
  • Michigan educators are ready for change.
  • Michigan advocacy organizations are ready for change.
  • Michigan legislators are ready for change.

Perhaps Michigan’s change in our approach to crises and our ability to eliminate involuntary seclusion and significantly reduce restraint will be so successful that we will become leaders for other states.  Perhaps Michigan’s ability to adopt developmental, relationship-based, trauma-informed, and neuroscience-aligned strategies will be the answer to our teacher shortage.  Perhaps this is a key piece of the solution to the school safety problems that Michigan is trying to solve. 


  • Guest Blogger

    This post was written by a guest blogger for the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint. Views and opinions expressed by guest bloggers do not represent the views and opinions of AASR.

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