Ban Restraint and Seclusion in Schools
My mother told me that, as a child, she was put in the closet as punishment. She was clearly traumatized by the experience because she spoke of it reluctantly and with great shame. I thought that this type of cruel treatment of children was a thing of the past until I read about Urijah Salazar, a special education student in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who has been restrained and secluded by his teachers over 150 times.
Urijah’s mother took him to the emergency room after school one day because he came home with bruises and scratches on both arms. The autistic boy, who was in a social-emotional support services classroom, had become aggressive, hitting and kicking when he was told to stop playing a computer game and return to his assignment. Two adults grabbed him and held him in a “team control position” for 25 minutes — bruising and scratching his arms.
What is a “team control position?”
A “team control position” is a technique in which two adults pull a child’s arms backward and force the child’s head toward the ground. Following the “team control position,” the adults secluded the fourth-grader for 70 minutes. Seclusion rooms are often small and unventilated and may violate state safety standards. Some report seeing walls of seclusion rooms smeared with blood and mucus.
Restraint and seclusion
More than two-thirds of the students who are restrained and secluded are students with disabilities and they are disproportionately African American or Native American boys, like Urijah Salazar. Students with special needs make up about 12% of the public school student population nationally, but experience 75% of physical restraint cases and 60% of seclusions, according to an analysis done by the Government Accountability Office.
As a result, the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and 56 other legal and social justice organizations issued a joint statement in 2018 calling for a federal ban on these practices in public schools.
Restraint and seclusion are only intended for emergency situations and special education advocates point out that restraining and secluding students for behavior that is predictable and consistent is not only irresponsible but also illegal. Research uniformly shows damage from restraint and seclusion. Rather than calming students down, students who are restrained and secluded are more likely to act out aggressively in the future.
Laws need to be passed
Twenty-nine states have tight limits on the use of restraint and seclusion and many state laws require schools to notify parents when restraint and seclusion are used. However, school districts across the country vastly underreport their use of these techniques.
While the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights requires that school districts report every time a student is restrained or secluded, nearly 80% of school districts claim that they have never secluded or restrained special education students.
Federal bills to outlaw seclusion and to protect students from restraint have been introduced for the last ten years, but Congress has yet to pass legislation to restrict the use of seclusion and restraint in schools. According to ProPublica, a pending bill in Illinois would restrict the use of seclusion and restraint only to situations in which there is an imminent danger of physical harm. Use of seclusion and restraint in that state is up 50%.
Corporal punishment damages children
Corporal punishment in schools is generally understood to mean deliberating inflicting bodily pain and discomfort on a child. It was outlawed in Poland in 1783 and is no longer legal in any European country. Overall, some 128 countries have prohibited corporal punishment in schools, but 69 countries still allow it, as well as 19 US states.
The Resolution on Physical Discipline of Children By Parents, adopted by the American Psychological Association in 2019, is based on strong, sophisticated longitudinal research and finds that
physical discipline does not improve behavior and can lead to emotional, behavioral and academic problems over time, even after race, gender and family socioeconomic status have been statistically controlled
Evidence shows that corporal punishment is an ineffective method of discipline and has major deleterious effects on the physical and mental health of those inflicted. It does not lead to better control in the classroom and has never been shown to enhance moral character, increase the students’ respect for teachers, help the teacher to control the class or protect the teacher.
Punishment doesn’t work
It is possible for school authorities to learn effective alternatives to corporal punishment that will benefit children. Using positive reinforcement techniques to reward appropriate behavior is more effective in the long run than methods using aversive techniques.
Dr. Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child and Lost at School and originator of the research-based approach, Collaborative and Proactive Solutions suggests two major tenets.
First, challenging behavior in kids is best understood as the result of lagging cognitive skills (in the general domains of flexibility/ adaptability, frustration tolerance, and problem solving) rather than as the result of passive, permissive, inconsistent, noncontingent parenting.
And second, the best way to reduce challenging episodes is by working together with the child — collaborating — to solve the problems setting them in motion in the first place (rather than by imposing adult will and intensive use of reward and punishment procedures).
Punishment produces very limited results. It creates an unproductive and punitive environment in which children lose their full learning potential. Students who are punished often develop low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
Efforts to end restraint and seclusion
The U.S. Department of Education’s offices for civil rights and for special education and rehabilitative services are working to “address the inappropriate use of restraint and seclusion” on students with disabilities. In 2019, the agencies outlined three areas that they would focus on:
- conducting compliance reviews of school districts;
- providing resources on the law and on interventions that could reduce the need for less effective and potentially dangerous practices
- and improving data collection on the use of restraint and seclusion.
End corporal punishment of children
The American Humanist Association joined with 77 other groups in an open letter calling for local, state, and federal policymakers to address the continued and damaging use of corporal punishment in both public and private schools. The Alliance to End the Hitting of Children is leading a national campaign to end the hitting of all children in school and at home.
Find out more
- Read the US Department of Education’s “Restraint and Seclusion: Resource Document”
- Explore “The Right to Be Safe in School: Advocacy and Litigation Strategies to Combat the Use of Restraint and Seclusion,” by the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPPA).
- Host a local community screening of the film The Kids We Lose about the “human side of being a child or student with behavioral challenges.”
About Peggy O’Mara. I am an independent journalist who was the editor and publisher of Mothering magazine for over 30 years. My books include Having a Baby Naturally, Natural Family Living, The Way Back Home and A Quiet Place. I have conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League, Hollyhock and Bioneers. I am the mother of four and grandmother of three. Sign up for my free newsletter for my latest posts on parenting, social justice, and healthy living.
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