Secluding Special Needs Kids in ‘Scream Rooms’ Catches Fire at Senate Hearing

The first ever hearing on restraint and seclusion brings school disciplinary practices into the spotlight.

autism, seclusion and restraint, special needs, schools
The use of restraint and seclusion is not the answer to curbing behavioral problems, says the ACLU. (Photo: Jason Lee)
Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart.

Locking children in "scream rooms," duct-taping their limbs, and leaving them with bruises caused by restraint are just a few ways schools across the country have chosen to discipline special needs children that are seen as disruptive in class.

These restraint and seclusion practices have come under fire for the multiple injuries, and even death, they have caused. In response to the outrage from parents and advocates, Iowa Democrat U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin sponsored a bill last December that would restrict restraint and ban seclusion. On Thursday, the first Senate hearing took place to address the proposed legislation.

Deborah Vagins, Senior Legislative Council for the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office, told TakePart that the "Keeping All Students Safe Act is a step toward protecting America's students from physical, mental, and emotional harm at school." Instead of the "draconian and archaic practices" that take place today, she says, "the bill promotes a supportive, positive, and engaging learning environment for students and teachers alike."

If passed, Vagins explains, it would ban the use of chemical and mechanical restraints as well as seclusion—otherwise known as locking kids in "scream rooms" or closets. The bill would also authorize grant funding for states to establish clear policies and procedures meant to keep the students and teachers safe.

Not everyone is a fan of the bill. The American Association of School Administrators opposes the regulation. Their argument is that it is unnecessary and would put school staff at risk.

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Dr. Michael George, the Director of Centennial School for special education in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, gave a testimony at the hearing about why the bill is necessary and about the benefits of alternative practices. He is a firm believer that a "hands off" policy is the way to go and that seclusion and restraint is not the answer.

In 1997, the year before he took over Centennial, he says, there were 1,064 restraints. Only 76 children were enrolled in the school.

"It was barbaric," he told TakePart. A restraint at his school, he explains, was something called a basket hold. "It's when a teacher sits behind a student on the floor, wrap their arms around them, and another teacher possibly holds down the child's legs. Sometimes three teachers would be involved," he says. The goal was to hold children until they were calm and would want to participate in class.

Debbie Jackson, a single mom of a nine-year-old diagnosed with Asperger's and several other mental disorders, knows all too well what a basket hold entails. She said at the hearing that her son Elijah was often "restrained by his arms, wrists, and legs by multiple staff at the same time. He suffered "countless bruises" and would come home in someone else's clothes "due to sweating from physically fighting the teachers to stop them from holding him down."

After struggling for years, Jackson moved her child to Centennial School—a place where he thrived and was never restrained. He made so much progress that recently, she moved Elijah to the local public school where he is now on the honor roll.

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Dr. George says that students do well at Centennial because the school has changed their vision, goals, and belief about students. "Rather than viewing the students as incapable or unwilling to behave in school, Centennial teachers now talk about students as learners who can meet the expectations set for them. We make our classroom a place free of anxiety. We are clear about our expectation and let them know how to succeed in class. We use only positive or neutral direction and all reminders to students that they aren't doing what they are supposed to do are done privately. If they are praised, teachers do it publicly."

The Senate hearing was a first step, and hopefully, Dr. George says, the testimonies from him and the other advocates will help move the needle forward.

If you feel that seclusion and restraint isn't the answer and want to spread the word about alternative practices, share this article with your friends on Facebook and Twitter.

Jenny is the Education Editor at TakePart. She has been writing for TakePart since 2009 and previously worked in film and television development. She has taught English in Vietnam and tutors homeless children in Los Angeles. Email Jenny | @jennyinglee | TakePart.com

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