Having a child with a disability or special needs comes with its own set of challenges and rewards. But for some of us parents, there is another looming fear, which is the fear that your child will be seriously injured or killed at school through the use of restraint or seclusion. In Pennsylvania, the PA Department of Education regulates specialized private schools under the same regulations as regular private schools. The result is that restraint and seclusion in specialized private schools go mostly unregulated. Unfortunately, I found this out the hard way.
When a public school district feels they cannot meet the needs of a child with special needs, they will send them to a specialized private school. While some parents see this as a positive thing, I have since learned that the complete lack of regulation puts our most vulnerable students at risk. In Pennsylvania, specialized private schools fall under the same rules as regular private schools; this means they are not subject to due process proceedings. So, if you have an issue with the specialized private school your child has been sent to, you must rely on the public school that sent them there to resolve the issue. However, the public school has no control over the privately owned, for-profit entities that run these private schools. The only option they can offer you is to switch schools, but that is a temporary solution since all of the specialized private schools in our area utilize restraint.
My personal experience with seclusion and restraint happened before I was a parent. After graduating college, I worked at a local residential treatment facility for kids. As a residential counselor, I was trained in crisis management and restraint techniques, but there was little focus on de-escalation techniques. Secluding and restraining kids was a frequent occurrence at this facility. At the time, I knew that I did not like restraining and secluding the kids, but I had no idea just how much trauma these actions caused. As a young new graduate in my first real job, I did not have the confidence to stand up and speak out against this practice. At the time, it was part of the culture and what was done when you had any issue with a child at that facility.
The only upside to this time spent in this role was that it opened my eyes to how horrific the practice of restraint is and better prepared me for the fight against this practice.
They say that trauma comes back as a reaction, not a memory, and I never realized how true this was until I had a child with special needs. The restraints and seclusions I experienced at that job had caused me a lot more hidden trauma than I had realized or acknowledged. This trauma began to surface in my daughter’s IEP meetings when the topic of restraint arose. This reaction would surface even before my daughter was restrained.
My daughter Elizabeth is currently 12 years old; she is autistic and is primarily non-speaking. In second grade, she was placed in a specialized private school by our home public school. Initially, we did not have any problems with her school. She had the same teacher from second grade until fourth grade. When she started fifth grade, she was switched to a new teacher. This teacher was also new to the school and only lasted a month and a half on the job. This was year two of the global pandemic, and most schools were having staffing issues, so it took until January of that year for my daughter’s class to get a new teacher. In the meantime, the special education supervisor took teaching the classroom. She acknowledged that her experience was not with autistic kids, as she had taught emotional support before her role as the supervisor. I had also found out from the previous teacher before she left the position that my daughter did not have the one-on-one support person that her IEP required and that our home school district was paying for. I doubt we would have been told about this issue if it wasn’t for me questioning the multiple reports I had received of the school nurse needing to call poison control after my daughter had ingested decorations hanging on the wall around the classroom. When I questioned why her one-on-one support wasn’t with her and stopped her from doing this, I was told she did not have one since they were short-staffed. So, my daughter spent much of her school day sitting there with no one paying attention to her. Elizabeth is very inquisitive and gets bored easily.
She also lacks safety awareness, so sitting around most of the day with no one paying attention to her puts her in a very unsafe position.
My daughter was first restrained at the end of October; it was the Friday before Halloween. I received a call from the school telling me that Elizabeth had been restrained in a supine restraint with five staff members holding her down. I asked them why she had been restrained, and they told me that she had gotten aggressive with staff, leading to her restraint. This account of what had happened would differ from the account they put on the paperwork submitted to the state and the account they would give at our IEP meeting following this event.
When I arrived at the school, I was informed that she had been restrained twice. The second time happened less than a minute after the first restraint, and it was due to my daughter biting on her GPS device. Her GPS device is something provided by me, and it is in a case that makes it bite-proof, so this was not a threat to the staff or herself. She was restrained because they told her not to bite the GPS unit, but she did not listen. The teacher and staff were so focused on compliance by any means necessary that they would use a life-threatening maneuver on my daughter to force compliance. I asked the behavior tech to see the nurse so that I could ask if she had evaluated my daughter’s condition as per her IEP. I was told that the nurse had done this and that she would get the nurse for me. I waited a long time, and the nurse never came to see me, so I took my visibly upset daughter home.
When we got home, I noticed bruises all over my daughter. There were several that you could see in the shape of a hand.
I let our service coordinator know what had happened, and she reported the incident to ChildLine. They sent it to the Monroeville police department, which has an established relationship with the school, so of course, they said the school had done nothing wrong. My daughter could not verbally express what she had been through, but she began to have night terrors the evening of the first restraint. Elizabeth would also start to cry and get upset without any apparent reason. Her school would not even acknowledge that she may have trauma due to the restraints.
I requested a copy of the official paperwork sent to the state regarding the restraint that happened. In this paperwork, I found a lot of information contradicting the information I had been given over the phone and when I got to the school. They also changed the story during the IEP meeting that followed the restraint. According to the paperwork, they suspected my daughter was in pain, which initially caused her to get upset. Instead of trying to help her with the pain, they began asking her to do tasks. When she could not complete the task, they insisted on compliance. This resulted in my daughter becoming upset, so the teacher forced her to go into the bathroom and would not allow her to leave until she had used the bathroom. My daughter has severe constipation issues, so being forced to sit on the toilet until she had gone to the bathroom was not a reasonable thing to expect. This action would cause a lot of trauma and issues with using the restroom afterward. She was restrained when she could not use the restroom and became upset when she tried to get up from the toilet. The second restraint happened less than a minute after the first one when she attempted to bite her GPS unit. During the IEP meeting, I questioned if they had tried to de-escalate my daughter before restraining her again a second time.
They lied and said they had utilized all of the de-escalation techniques listed on the restraint report form. This is not even possible to do in under 60 seconds.
After the restraint, they called the nurse in to evaluate my daughter since she has a medical condition that makes her more prone to getting blood clots. The nurse noted that she did not look at her arms or legs since clothing covered them. She did note that my daughter kept holding her stomach, which had been noted as the possible cause of pain earlier in the form. The only reason the school even called the nurse down was that I had put it in the IEP as a precaution. In our state, the school does not even have to notify the parents when the restraint happens; they only have to notify the parents about the option to have an IEP meeting afterward. Imagine being hurt at school and then coming home and not being able to tell anyone what happened to you. That could have easily been the situation with my daughter if I had not been proactive in requiring that I be notified when a restraint happens in her IEP.
At the IEP meeting after the restraint, when I questioned the staff’s actions, I was shut down and told by the special education director that if my daughter were attending their school, she would be restrained and that there wasn’t anything I could do about it. That statement made me realize that the school had a big change in the culture. I believe that this new director was a big reason for this shift to a compliance or else type of mindset. In previous years, we had always been assured that restraint was only a last-resort method used in life-threatening situations. Under this new director, it seemed to be utilized as a common behavior management technique. The policy that New Story Schools have in place regarding restraint and seclusion is very similar to the policy that Pennsylvania has in place.
However, when I asked this new director and the supervisor (also her current teacher) about following New Story schools’ policy, they said they were following it. I asked them to add that my daughter had bruises due to the restraint to the official paperwork sent to the state, and they told me they would not do this. They said that I had no proof that they had caused these bruises, so they are not taking any responsibility for that. I also asked that my daughter be evaluated for trauma due to being restrained, which was a part of their policy, but I was told my daughter did not qualify. They refused to consider that request or give me any further explanation of why they would not consider her for this.
They claim to be a trauma-informed school, but how can you be trauma-informed when you are causing trauma by frequently restraining kids?
Unfortunately, this was just the first of many restraints that year. Some of the reasons listed for my daughter being restrained include getting glitter into her eyes, not wanting to go into the bathroom, and trying to eat some snow outside. I found out from our educational advocate that several kids were attending the same school with advocates through the agency she worked for who were having the same issues with being restrained.
After the first restraint, I began to advocate for my daughter by learning all I could about our state laws regarding restraint and seclusion. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t realize until several months later that these laws did not apply to the specialized private school that my daughter was attending. Had I known that I was signing my daughter’s rights to basic protections away when I agreed to have her placed at this school, I would never have agreed.
Our home school district special education director assisted us with looking for a new school for my daughter. Still, since it was during the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the local specialized private schools did not have enough staff to accept my daughter during that school year. Luckily, we were able to find a better school for the next school year. My daughter is now in a school focusing on relationships over compliance. I am confident they are committed to not using restraints to get compliance. They do not even have seclusion rooms at this new school. While I feel very secure about the culture at my daughter’s current school, I have seen how quickly the culture can change. A change in leadership or even severe staffing issues can change how things are done, and before you know it, the culture has shifted, and there isn’t anything you can do except change schools again.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education should develop and enforce more stringent regulations specifically designed to prevent the inappropriate use of restraints and seclusion in specialized private schools. These specialized private schools educate the children with the highest level of needs and those most likely to be restrained or secluded. We need to advocate for them to separate the specialized private schools from the regular private schools so that children with IEPs can exercise their due process rights to hold these schools accountable. All children should have adequate protection from abuse regardless of their school.
Every child has the right to a quality education in a setting that respects their dignity and individuality.
To accomplish this, we need to advocate for the Pennsylvania Department of Education to prioritize this issue and take immediate steps to protect the rights and well-being of children with disabilities in specialized private schools. We can create a brighter and more inclusive future for all children. If we work together, we can create an educational system in Pennsylvania that upholds the rights and dignity of children with disabilities, fostering an environment where they can thrive and reach their full potential.