Opinion Why are schools submitting kids to this barbaric treatment?
"Brian Calley, a former lieutenant governor of Michigan, is chief executive of the Small Business Association of Michigan and vice chair of the Autism Alliance of Michigan board of directors.
Imagine a child with a disability, unable to communicate needs, wants or fears. In frustration or fright, that child might overturn a desk or throw a book. Now, imagine a teacher secluding that child in a dark closet or pinning that child to the floor.
This year, thousands of U.S. schools are using these barbaric “restraint and seclusion” practices as go-to strategies to punish or segregate students with disabilities. Yet these techniques don’t resolve problematic or dangerous behaviors — they make things worse, escalating behaviors and potentially causing physical harm to children, emotional damage or even death.
“Restraint” refers to physical force or the use of a device such as ties or straps to hold a child down. “Seclusion” involves forced isolation — solitary confinement in a closed spaced such as a soundproof, padded room or a closet where an unsupervised child having a meltdown could be seriously injured.
I have a daughter with autism. When I first heard about this practice, I thought it must be rare. But it is shockingly common, having been used against tens of thousands of U.S. students in recent years.
In Michigan alone, where my family resides, restraint and seclusion was used in schools more than 94,000 times from 2017 to 2022. Because there are no penalties issued to schools for failing to report, this number is undoubtedly an undercount. An Education Department analysis covering the 2017-2018 school year (based on self-reporting) showed that more than 100,000 children across the United States had been subjected to these inhumane practices.
The use of restraint and seclusion also appears to be discriminatory. According to the Education Department, students with disabilities receiving special education and other services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) made up 13 percent of the student population, yet they accounted for 80 percent of the students subjected to physical restraint and 77 percent of those subjected to seclusion.
Each use of restraint and seclusion diminishes the future of any child subjected to it. Put yourself in the child’s shoes: What if you went five days a week to a school that regularly locked you up or physically held you down? Most of us would walk in ready for a fight, not to learn.
In 2015, as Michigan’s lieutenant governor, I went on a statewide special-education listening tour, speaking with educators, administrators, parents and students. I heard over and over from parents about the trauma their children faced with the regular use of restraint and seclusion, even as school administrators assured me that such tactics were used only in emergencies and, even then, rarely.
It was clear this was a major problem. So, my office developed a proposal to ban restraint and seclusion in non-emergency situations. In 2016, I signed legislationthat did just that, and that required schools to report to parents and the Michigan Department of Education when the practice was used, so we could track its prevalence. The resulting data revealed a situation that was even worse than I feared.
Those who insist on using restraint and seclusion generally cite problematic or explosive behaviors as justification. Sometimes, in emergencies that present immediate danger to the student or others — a child running out into a roadway, or trying to physically harm another student — temporary physical restraint might be necessary as a last resort. But it should be limited to situations of imminent physical injury, never restrict a child’s breathing, and never persist longer than necessary to prevent harm.
There is another way. It starts with understanding that all behavior has a purpose; knowing the motivation behind a behavior is critical to building an effective plan to head it off. For example, if the problem behavior is attention-seeking, scolding or sending a student to the principal’s office might unintentionally reinforce and escalate the problem — because punishment is attention. In this case, a plan might call for the teacher to ignore certain behaviors, what is known in the behavioral-sciences world as “putting the behavior on extinction.”
Another approach says it’s not enough to simply prevent problem behaviors; we need to teach and reinforce favorable ones. In the above example, the plan wouldn’t only say to ignore, but also to heap positive attention on a child who exhibits desired behaviors.
A comprehensive plan might also call for frequent breaks. It might say, don’t discourage self-regulating behaviors such as hand flapping or spinning; do control for noise levels and lighting. Truly understanding the needs, desires and triggers of each child helps prevent and de-escalate the behaviors that can lead to restraint and seclusion.
This all necessitates significant training and specialized personnel. Ideally, every school would have a board-certified behavior analyst on-site and a teaching staff dedicated to learning and sticking to evidence-based plans — which costs money. But it also demands a strong will to change.
Here’s the thing: The federal government has the power to improve children’s lives now. IDEA is a beautifully written, comprehensive law that implicitly prohibits restraint and seclusion in non-emergency situations, in its provision that children be educated in the “least restrictive environment.” But there has been significant reluctance to use the act to its fullest extent.
IDEA has many reasonable requirements of schools and a formula to federally finance them. But since the 1970s, IDEA has never been fully funded. The federal government is supposed to cover 40 percent of the costs to states and local schools providing a “free and appropriate public education” to children with disabilities. Yet, as of 2021, the government was covering less than 16 percent of those costs. Thus restraint and seclusion becomes a cheap, short-term alternative for schools to deal with severe behavior problems.
Children with disabilities are among the most marginalized students in every state, and it is a shame that instead of supporting them, schools are traumatizing them. At its core, their mistreatment is a civil rights violation. It needs to be treated like the emergency it is."