More than 250,000 pre-K, elementary, junior high and high school aged children – many of them disabled and of color – are restrained or put into isolation each year for behaving in ways that are considered disruptive or threatening.
Ask most parents, and they’ll probably tell you that they send their children to school to learn reading, writing and arithmetic. At the same time, schools have always done more than this, teaching children to mediate conflict, socialize with peers, and demonstrate self-control and discipline.
But what happens when children, especially those in pre-K and elementary school, refuse to behave as expected? In some places the answer is to isolate the unruly child, or restrain him or her so that lashing out becomes impossible.
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According to a June 2014 report from ProPublica there are no federal limits on the use of physical restraint or isolation rooms for children attending public or charter schools, even if the student is disabled or in need of therapeutic services. The result is a roster of horrors: “pinning uncooperative children face down on the floor, or locking them in dark closets and tying them with straps, handcuffs, bungee cords and even duct tape.”
Yes, it sounds like something out of Dickens, but these tactics are far from unusual. In fact, ProPublica documented 267,000 instances in which kids as young as four were subjected to these tactics in 2012 alone. Even more appalling, in the two decades between 1992 and 2012, at least 20 children have died as a result of injuries sustained in isolation rooms or from restraints. An after-the-fact lawsuit is small comfort to their grieving families.
Some states, of course, have given lip service to protecting children from the cavalier use of such measures. Nonetheless, in most places, the standards governing discipline and control are so vague that they offer scant protection from abuse. The federal government is no better, discouraging the use of restraints or isolation “except where there is a threat of imminent danger or serious physical harm to the student or others.”
If you’re wondering how “imminent danger” is defined you’re not alone. The upshot of this imprecision, however, is anything but ambiguous.
The US Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, concedes that students of color and the disabled – the majority of them male – are much more likely than their white peers to be given out-of-school suspensions or be subjected to isolation or restraint. And the disparity starts early. While African-American kids comprise 18 percent of pre-K students nationwide, they receive 48 percent of pre-K suspensions. Yes, you read this correctly: This is happening to 3 and 4-year-olds.
Not surprisingly, as they get older, black students represent 31 percent of those subjected to school-related arrests, placing them squarely on what has become known as the school-to-prison pipeline. That it begins in preschool should have everyone interested in education shaking their heads in collective dismay, disbelief and fury.
There’s more to this horror story. Another statistic, again from the US Department of Education, completes the picture: Although students with disabilities comprise 12 percent of the total school population, they make up 58 percent of those placed in seclusion and 75 percent of those who are restrained. Among their disabilities: autism, blindness and visual impairments, developmental delays, deafness and hearing loss, mobility limitations, speech or language difficulties, traumatic brain injuries and learning disorders.
Kareem, now 8, is one of these students. His most recent individualized education plan, (IEP) issued in June 2014, notes that his “cognitive abilities fall within the superior range overall. His academic skills are above grade level.” Despite this, the IEP reports that Kareem “has difficulty working independently due to oppositional tendencies and distractibility. When he becomes overwhelmed in academic and social situations he withdraws by becoming defiant and physically acting out.” The proposed solution? Classes that allow short bursts of instruction and frequent breaks.
Kareem’s mom, Nadya Mashal, says that her son’s problems began to manifest when he was in pre-K. “His school was pretty flexible,” she begins, “but one day when he was 4, he became upset and peed himself, then took something from another kid’s cubby. He also hit a kid in his class.” Mashal says that she had previously noticed that things with Kareem were building, that he seemed tense and angry. “When I got over feeling guilty for not acting sooner, I asked his teachers how I could support him. I said that I wanted to have him evaluated since he was going to start kindergarten in the fall and I was worried. I was also afraid that since Kareem was a boy of color, I might be giving the Department of Education the tools to discriminate against him.” Still, Mashal took Kareem for IQ and other tests of his social and emotional functioning since she wanted him to get the therapy she knew he needed.
The summer passed without incident and Kareem entered kindergarten in the fall of 2011. “He made it through most of the school year,” Mashal says, “but in the late spring he was suspended from his after-school program for two days for refusing to follow directions. Then, right before the school year ended, on a day when Kareem’s older brother was home sick, I got a call that he had kicked his teacher. The school had a ‘zero tolerance’ policy, so Kareem was sent home, suspended for the first time. From that point forward, my son understood that if he wanted to get out of something all he had to do was kick someone. It went downhill from there.”
In addition, that summer Kareem was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Everything shifted in first grade. A classroom that should have been capped at 18 had 30 kids. Kareem was supposed to have a para with him for part of each day, but no one was assigned. His behavior worsened and he was restrained for the first time on September 29, 2012. I was at work that day and got a call that Kareem was screaming and kicking. The school was threatening to send him to the hospital emergency room – a common tactic when students are said to be out of control – unless I took him home immediately. I told them I couldn’t do that because it would take me at least an hour to travel from my job; they eventually let Kareem leave with his babysitter and did not send him to the ER. At that point I had no idea that he had been restrained.
Several days later another confrontation occurred and Kareem was again removed from his classroom and physically constrained – this time he was covered from head to toe in a blanket – and placed in isolation. He was subsequently restrained for refusing to complete an assignment and for getting up from his desk without permission. “He was deteriorating, his bad behavior was escalating, and after 17 separate disciplinary actions – including three out-of-school suspensions – I felt I had to pull my 6-year-old out of school. By this point he had developed tics, was twitching and was wetting himself,” Mashal says. The Department of Education sent a tutor to the Mashal home for one-hour a day, and Mashal paid for additional tutoring out-of-pocket.
A lawsuit against the Department of Education led to Kareem’s placement in a 10-month-a-year private day school in October 2013. This, after seven months of homeschooling. The new $64,000 a year program offers small classes and individualized instruction. “Kareem is welcomed and feels normal in this school,” Mashal says. “They don’t hold a grudge if he has a bad day and lashes out. He can go to the Blue Room when he needs to calm down, and most importantly, he feels safe and is happy to go to school. He knows he can have a tantrum and that it will be okay.”
Other kids, however, are not as lucky as Kareem.
Family therapist Carol Hornbeck says that she often treats families on the brink, and sees what happens when domestic problems are coupled with academic pressures. When households experience economic troubles, domestic violence, addiction, illness or other tensions, she told Truthout that children often feel confused, angry and vulnerable, conditions that are exacerbated by punitive school discipline. “If kids don’t feel safe at school, or have been abused by a teacher or a school staff person, they will likely have trouble concentrating, focusing and paying attention,” she says. “They may also feel anxiety and experience other chronic health problems. Safety is basic to learning. If kids don’t feel safe, they’ll have trouble absorbing new information.”
So how should discipline be meted out so that it does not traumatize an already traumatized child – but does provide boundaries and stop violent or disruptive outbursts?
Terry Kalb, a 30-year veteran teacher who now works as an educational advocate, makes clear that she believes isolation and restraint should never be used as punishment. “It’s an abuse of power,” she says. Nonetheless, Kalb maintains that there are times when physical control is imperative. “When severely autistic or mentally disabled students are self-abusive, in some cases banging their heads or limbs against hard objects, they need to be stopped.” However, Kalb says, there are methods of dealing with crises that don’t use violence. For example, the teacher can facilitate the removal of other children from the situation, instead of physical removing the child who is acting out. She also mentions how body language can be utilized to demonstrate safety, and how post-incident discussion can be used to forestall future problems.
Tom Roderick, executive director of the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, adds, “in some places it is the school’s policy to handle disruptive students by having emergency medical personnel take them to a hospital or calling school security to restrain them.” Although he wishes this was not so, he explains that teachers often have no option but to follow the prescribed protocol. Instead, he and the Morningside Center favor a model of discipline that the group is bringing to schools across the country. Called Restorative Circles, the program, he says, aims to “build a caring school community and teach kids the skills to handle their emotions and deal with conflicts. Kids, some of them quite young, learn that being part of a community means that you have to take responsibility for your actions.” Morningside also helps schools set up lunch clubs where kids who are often in trouble – the same kids who might be isolated or restrained – spend their midday break “talking and learning how to respond in a strong and assertive, but not mean, way to things that trigger them.”
More than anything, it is important to remember – for all children – that their behavior is not the sum total of who they are. As educator Margaret Berry Wilson reminds us, “When children are defiant, their goal is not to annoy, disrespect or frustrate us. Rather, their goal is to feel significant.”