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Still a Terrifying Way to Discipline Children: One Year Later

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One year ago, I wrote an article for the New York Times exposing the use of physical restraints and isolation rooms with students in schools across the country, a practice I first learned about when we found my then-5 year-old daughter, Rose, locked in a closet where she had been confined almost daily over a three month period.

Rose, as I found out, was not alone. According to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 40,000 students were restrained or isolated in seclusion rooms during the 2009-10 school year, with the majority of those having learning, behavioral, physical or developmental needs. African-American and Hispanic students were also disproportionately isolated or restrained.

These dangerous practices, I learned, can quickly get out of hand.

Students in Middletown, Conn. reported a "scream room" in their school where children who had been locked away in a book closet could be heard screaming as they bloodied their heads against the room's cinder block walls; Sandra Baker of Harrodsburg, Ky., found her fourth-grade son, Christopher, stuffed inside a duffel bag in the school hallway, with its drawstrings pulled tight, after he reportedly misbehaved in class (He was "thrown in the hall like trash," Baker told me.) And 16-year-old Corey Foster died on a school basketball court in Yonkers, N.Y. as four staff members restrained him following a confrontation during a game. His mother, Sheila Foster, made national headlines calling for an investigation of Corey's case and a law prohibiting restraints and seclusion in schools. "My child today; your child tomorrow," says Foster, who has joined with me and other parents to raise awareness of this issue.

The Times article "helped coalesce a national effort to end these practices" according to the prestigious Casey Medals for Meritorious Journalism, which honored the story and its impact, as reporters, parents and educators in states from Arizona to Maine mobilized to find out about the use of physical restraints and isolation rooms in their communities, resulting in many schools and communities banning such practices.

However, others, even in a state as enlightened about child welfare issues like Massachusetts, have defended the use of physical restraints and seclusion rooms in schools and communities like Newton, MA are even building isolation rooms into new schools being constructed, despite a broad consensus among educational experts that the use of physical restraints and isolation rooms with children is dangerous, can be fatal and if nothing else, are simply ineffective at teaching kids the self-control and negotiation skills they need.

Consider Reno, NV and Newton, MA, two communities that represent the two extremes of the response to the issue, with, Reno, surprisingly, being the more enlightened community and Newton, even in the shadow of great institutions such as Harvard University and Children's Hospital, where there's no shortage of child development experts, building a new school with two 10' x 10' isolation rooms.

In Reno, isolation rooms were made illegal in 1999, but the issue was raised again this past year as parents identified small seclusion rooms being used throughout the Reno school system. Following a public investigation, 12 such rooms were found to have been in use, and the school superintendent ordered the doors to the seclusion rooms be removed, that the rooms be repainted, and other uses were found for the spaces.

"The vast majority of our educators would never even think of trying to do something inappropriate like forcing a child to go into a room." - Frank Selvaggio, Reno, NV student service director

In an interview with WRNV-TV News/Reno, Frank Selvaggio, a Reno student service director, said the school system welcomed the scrutiny and concerns of the parents, and added "When you have such a room, how do you know for sure that it will be used properly . . . the vast majority of our educators would never even think of trying to do something inappropriate like forcing a child to go into a room..."

Compare that response to the situation in Newton, MA (where, for full disclosure, I attended high school and was graduation speaker) when it was reported in November that a new elementary school was being constructed that contained two padded 10" x 10" isolation rooms. When parents discovered the plans for the seclusion rooms in the school blueprints, and voiced their objections, the school department pushed back.

Joe Russo, Newton's Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education, told a local newspaper that the mainstreaming of students with special needs required seclusion rooms.

"We've seen a need for them as kids with more intense needs are mainstreamed into the classrooms," Russo told the Newton Tab.

Russo was seconded by Betty Ungar Lapide, a retired teacher from a town nearby Newton, who wrote to the newspaper saying she saw no other recourse other than an isolation room when a classroom teacher must handle a student with challenging behaviors in the classroom.

"When a child becomes disruptive," wrote Ms. Lapide, "he/she disrupts the learning for everyone. It's as simple as that. No one can learn when one child is having difficulties . . . In past generations, teachers would send disruptive students to the principal's office, students would be 'told' to behave, and sometimes their parents were notified. That was usually enough. Talking to a student sometimes helps, but it takes away valuable learning time when the teacher has to do it."

In fact, there is no evidence that physically restraining a child, or confining a child in an isolation room, is an effective way to help a child calm down, nor, perhaps more importantly, to help that child learn the skills needed to self-regulate or the interpersonal skills to negotiate for what they want or need. This is the position taken by leading education experts including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who in May 2012 sent schools throughout the country a 45-page resource guide that also contained dozens of best practice interventions, which have been shown to be effective in helping kids learn self-control as well as other critical life skills.

"As education leaders, our first responsibility must be to ensure that schools foster learning in a safe and healthy environment for all our children, teachers, and staff," wrote Secretary Duncan. "As many reports have documented, the use of restraint and seclusion can have very serious consequences, including, most tragically, death. Furthermore, there continues to be no evidence that using restraint or seclusion is effective in reducing the occurrence of the problem behaviors that frequently precipitate the use of such techniques . . . schools must make every effort to structure safe environments and provide a behavioral framework, such as the use of positive behavior interventions and supports, that applies to all children, all staff, and all places in the school so that restraint and seclusion techniques are unnecessary."

Duncan is seconded by Joe Ryan, at Clemson's School of Education, and an expert on the use of restraint, seclusion and alternative methods.

"Over the last several decades many schools across the nation have become increasingly reliant upon the use of seclusion to help manage students who display challenging behaviors. This is unfortunate and dangerous given there are a number of safer and more effective procedures available for reducing student maladaptive behaviors. These include using less intrusive forms of timeout; effective behavior management plans; crisis de-escalation strategies; and a school wide positive behavioral support system. When teachers, support staff and administrators are not properly trained in effective behavior management and crisis intervention techniques, their actions, both verbal and physical, may inadvertently exacerbate a situation rather than pacify it. Making educators more aware of the dangers of restraints and seclusion, and training them in safer more effective behavior management strategies will help make schools safer for all children."

The most forceful argument on this issue remains that of Rep. George Miller, sponsor of the Keeping All Students Safe Act, a federal law that would curtail the use of restraints and seclusion rooms in schools across the country supported by Sheila Foster, me and other parents who have dealt with these issues. Speaking on the floor of the house when he introduced the legislation in 2010, Miller spoke forcefully and emotionally about the need for the legislation:

"These are 4- and 5- and 6-year old kids. None of us would stand for this with our children or our grandchildren. Not for a minute . . . Who the hell is going to step in and protect these children. They can't do it themselves. . . . We ought to take this step to put us on record that we're prepared to do something to end this practice, this abuse, this torture, of very young children."

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With Amy Peterson