During Elijah's early years in school, Debbie Jackson, his single mother, routinely came home to hear messages of his screams on her answering machine -- and no other word from administrators. The blood-curdling voicemails sometimes came as often as three times a day. "It was a nightmare," Jackson said. "I no longer recognized my son."
Elijah was screaming because he appeared to teachers as unruly, and his teachers tried to get him in line through seclusion and restraint. He would throw pencils on the floor, turn over desks, hit other students and rip pictures from the wall. Teachers did what most U.S. educators have been trained to do when faced with kids who act out violently. They restrained Elijah by his arms, wrists, and legs, or placed him in a locked room by himself.
Elijah got better after he transferred to a school that focused on positive behavior modification. As it turns out, according to his mother, his earlier school had failed to diagnose him with several disabilities. That's why Jackson testified at Thursday's Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee hearing on seclusion and restraint in schools.
The hearing, the first time Congress has explored the issue, came after recent U.S. Education Department data shows schools physically restrained students 39,000 times during the 2009-2010 school year -- and black, Hispanic and students with disabilities bore the brunt of that. According to the Education Department's Civil Right Data Collection, a survey of 85 percent of the country's 100,000 schools released in March, 70 percent of students who were restrained had disabilities. Schools mechanically restrained African American and Hispanic students at twice the rate expected given their population.
The hearing also comes after several highly-publicized cases in which these tactics injured or killed students. “In April, at the Leake and Watts School in Yonkers, New York, 16-year-old Corey Foster was restrained by school staff members who were trying to remove him from a basketball court," Harkin said. "Corey stopped breathing, went into cardiac arrest, and died." Corey's mother attended the hearing.
The people who testified at the hearing shared a common theme: While physical restraint seems like a logical reaction to kids who act out violently, the practice is damaging and costly, and doesn't usually fix behavioral problems. What works, the witnesses said, are preventative programs that replace disruptive behaviors with positive, benign patterns. And what needs to change in schools, they said, is training teachers to reinforce kids' good behavior.
Only 16 states have laws that limit the use of physical restraint in school, and the federal government has nothing on the books. Last year, Harkin sponsored a bill that would ban the use of seclusion and restraint in schools, barring extreme circumstances. Harkin had hoped to include it in the rewrite of No Child Left Behind, but that process is stalled.
A survey by the American Association of School Administrators released Wednesday said schools are cutting back on nonviolent intervention training. In 2009, the Safe and Drug Free Schools' state grant was eliminated, and the majority of AASA members reported the loss made it "considerably or moderately more difficult" to fund crisis training programs. the survey said 91 percent of the association's members reported that their schools would be better if provided with more funding for positive interventions.
But the association said it doubts that banning seclusion and restraint will work for all students, writing it is "unrealistic" to assume that positive behavior interventions by themselves will help special education students "as successfully as general education students." The group also said Harkin's bill is flawed because it rules out less harmful types of restraint and seclusion methods.
When Michael George took over Lehigh University's Centennial School, an alternative school in Pennsylvania that targets students with aggressive behavioral issues, he was disturbed, he said. "The use of physical restraint was commonplace," he told senators. In 20 days, staff members restrained students 112 times, often using a "basket hold" grip from behind. By year's end, George had closed the school's two seclusion rooms, and only used physical restraint once during the last 40 days of school. "We have the technical knowledge necessary … to end the overreliance of seclusion and physical restraint," he said.
George said he changed his school by training teachers to solve problems with nonviolent behavior modification. The training helped Elijah, who is now 9. "I was not used to Elijah being treated as a person," Jackson, his mother, said. The school gave him a point system for good behavior that accrued into credits for shopping at the school score, a Burger King lunch, and field trips. "Centennial held Elijah responsible for his choices," Jackson recalled. Now, Elijah attends a traditional public school and wins awards for writing and art. He begins fourth grade in the fall.
Clarification: Language has been added to indicate the cause of Elijah's apparent "unruliness."