WASHINGTON -- Tens of thousands of students, most of them disabled, are strapped down or physically restrained in school, and disability advocates hope that a new Education Department report detailing the practice of "seclusion and restraint" will spur federal action to end it.
The report, compiled and made public for the first time by the department's civil rights arm, shows that 70 percent of students subjected to the techniques have disabilities. There are no current federal standards on the use of the techniques in schools.
The American Association of School Administrators says they are a last resort in protecting students and faculty from physical harm and keeping some children with behavioral problems in schools who might otherwise go into residential institutions. Advocates for the disabled say the use of seclusion and restraint is too accepted in schools and has led to abuse. They want Congress or the department to help curtail the practice.
They point to news reports and a Government Accountability Office study in 2009 illustrating cases of children as young as preschool age who were duct-taped to chairs and locked alone for hours. That report by Congress' investigative and auditing arm did not determine whether these types of allegations were widespread, but investigators did find "hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and death related to the use of these methods on schoolchildren during the past two decades."
In one recent case, the mother of a Kentucky boy with autism said that when she went to her son's school, she found him stuffed in a canvas duffel bag in the hallway. Connecticut lawmakers are considering a bill that would require the state to report how often special education students are isolated because of emotional outbursts. That follows incidents in Middletown, Conn., where special education students were allegedly isolated in "scream rooms" during outbursts.
Sasha Pudelski, government affairs manager at the school administrators association, said except in rare cases, school workers use seclusion and restraint safely and only when necessary. She said federal action isn't appropriate because the issue should be addressed at the local and state level, which is happening.
"We would never defend the heinous practices that are sometimes highlighted," Pudelski said.
The department's data from the 2009-2010 school year showed tens of thousands of instances in which the techniques were reportedly used. It also showed that that while black students represent 21 percent of students with disabilities, they account for 44 percent of students with disabilities who are subjected to mechanical restraints. It's unclear the circumstances or exact methods used in the cases.
People on both sides of the debate said the new numbers don't show a complete picture.
Because they are based on a survey that relied on self-reporting in about 85 percent of schools, activists said there are likely many more cases. Pudelski said it was the first time that schools were asked to compile the statistics, so there was confusion about how to count some situations, and therefore probably over-reporting.
Reece L. Peterson, a special education professor at the University of Nebraska who has testified before Congress on the topic, said there's a consensus among special educators about using seclusion and restraint only in emergencies where there's a threat of someone getting hurt.
Based on the department's new numbers, Peterson said, "there is some evidence that these things are being used on a basis more widely than simply these kind of emergency situations."
Reports of such incidents should be "minuscule," said Maureen Fitzgerald, director of disability rights at the Arc, which advocates for people with disabilities. Fitzgerald said when abuses occur, it's usually because workers aren't properly trained.
"They are put in situations where they're not trained, they don't have the support they need and things get out of control because they don't know how to manage the kids, and they do whatever they can to keep everybody calm and safe ... and that's when people start getting hurt," Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald's organization is among several disability organizations seeking passage of a bill by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, that would prohibit the use of seclusion and allow restraints only in emergency situations and until the danger of serious bodily injury has passed. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., has a similar bill in the House. Legislation to address the issue sponsored by Miller passed in 2010 but failed to get out of the Senate.
Activists also say the Education Department should be doing more to highlight and end the practice. In a report this past week, Curt Decker, the executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, wrote that the department hasn't provided "meaningful" leadership on the issue and has failed to issue clear guidance on when seclusion and restraint might violate the law.
"The guidance at a minimum must also limit the use of physical restraint or seclusion to circumstances when necessary to protect a child or others from imminent physical danger and not weaken existing protections in the states," Decker said.
Daren Briscoe, an Education Department spokesman, said the new data will be an "invaluable tool to illuminate trouble spots, highlight best practices, and pinpoint areas where teacher and principal training may be appropriate."