What Would Sisyphus Do?

- by Jeremy Ulderich, Director of Education Consultation and Development
with support from Bonnie Zampino

In Greek mythology, after leading a life of deceit, King Sisyphus was sentenced by the gods to an eternal punishment most cruel: each day he was forced to roll a boulder to the top of a mountain, only to watch it magically elude his grasp and return to the bottom from whence it came. Aside from the whole 'life of deceit'-thing, in the last year I've felt a kinship to ole' Sisyphus and his unconquerable task.

After all, haven't we placed countless calls and emails, reached out to educator and politician alike, all in the hopes of raising awareness that schools need not employ restrictive practices such a restraint and seclusion? (Even while I'm writing this blog entry, we have a team in Washington briefing staffers in the hopes that the issue gains more traction).

The task before us, the boulder we've set against, is public perception. It's a tremendous tide, and no less obvious than what we'll all witness in this election year as candidates vie for our attention. We exist in a society where the perceptions of 'control,' 'liberty,' and 'safety' are hotly debated. In fact, variations of these same values are spelled out in legislation which regulates conduct in schools.

So when we're able to make contact with a superintendent, teacher, or advocate, it's in the context of that public perception, and in fact, any associated legislation. You read your newsfeed every morning; you've seen the videos. You're aware of situations where school officials have pulled students from their seats and/or sat on them. Yet legislation in your state or district may not reflect that these folks have in fact violated school policy (they certainly have violated other child protective laws, when applicable).

Think about this- only about half of our states have laws in place limiting the use of restraint or seclusion in public schools. Of those that do, there is language in some that is painfully subjective, such as "sparingly" and "reasonable" (the latter is followed in code by the phrase "physical force"- remember, we're talking about our schools). In 18 states, laws limit the use of restrictive practices in schools for students with disabilities but are so vague otherwise that they lack any such protection for children without a disability. I have a loved one who remembers being locked in a closet while in elementary school, not thirty years ago.

The scary thing? 28 states not only permit such an event to happen even today, but they also don't place responsibility on the educator to monitor the child when this occurs to ensure their safety.

So while we log on every morning with the potential to be incensed by another video of a child being handcuffed in a public school setting, state legislation creeps along. We've contacted states who are 'investigating the impact' of restrictive practices or 'offering public comment' in the face of 267,000 annual incidents nationwide. As we've become savvier to the public perception-political-legislative machine, the details are equally as frustrating.

When states are considering modifying existing laws, they confer with state officials to determine best practices. Unfortunately, what we've found is that some organizations continue to remain so narrowly focused on the 'quality' of restrictive practices that they aren't open to permitting alternative methods. The laws are written in such a way that alternatives cannot even be considered. These officials have thanked us for our ideas and lauded our efforts, and have kindly denied including our alternative on their list of 'recommended strategies.'

Are you starting the feel the weight of that boulder too?

The good news is that there are others like us out there- parents, providers who want to do right by their students, international advocacy groups, and even school systems who have independently determined that they will not accept such practices. When we get one of these folks on the phone, or meet them at a conference, it's like a breath of fresh air. I feel like we've shared the secret handshake and speak the same language. They just get it.

Then we share stories. It could have been their child, who had been in public school years ago. It could be the current court case that they're representing, or something tragic that had happened in their school which created a sense of urgency. Ultimately, our conversation doesn't hinge on that tragedy, or on the pain of that restrictive practice, but on the hope that we share. The hope that while the setting isn't perfect, there is success, and there is a gathering momentum. When the opportunity presents itself, we share our efforts and contacts- knowing that collectively if we continue to raise the issue, it will eventually be heard. We know that a solution can exist in which schools do not need to employ restrictive practices to maintain safety.

And so, we plug on, refreshed and encouraged by our new like-minded friend, who joins us in the task of pushing the boulder. Unlike ole' Sisyphus, we are not alone in the struggle, and it's for that very reason that I believe we will succeed where he could not.