Does Your Kid Go to School in a State Where Thousands Are Isolated and Restrained?

If that's not scary enough, in many states school staff don't even have to notify parents when it happens.

Photo: Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Jun 20, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

At a Virginia school, an autistic boy who was frequently wrestled into a “quiet area” had to have surgery after his hand was crushed in a door. At a Georgia school, a 13-year-old hanged himself while shut in a room alone. When staff in Iowa tied a 15-year-old autistic student to a lunch table, they said it was "for his own safety."

Restraints and forced segregations were used 267,000 times in U.S. public schools in 2012, according to an investigation released this week by ProPublica and National Public Radio. Most of the time restrained students had existing emotional or developmental disabilities. During the majority of these incidents school staff members held students down, often in the “prone position,” with their faces to the floor. While it may seem less extreme than “mechanical” restraint using belts or ties, the “prone position” can cut off airflow. Since 2009, 20 children have died while being restrained at school.

"If you did this at home, you'd be arrested,” a parent told ProPublica. Despite the potential for accident or injury, in 16 states and the District of Columbia, schools are not required to notify parents when their children are restrained at school.

A 2012 survey by the American Association of School Administrators found that one in five administrators approves of restraint. Its defenders argue that without the option aggressive or disturbed students won't be able to safely attend public schools and will require more “restrictive settings.”

Proponents have also suggested that schools would become more dangerous if staff were not able to restrain and isolate difficult children. But this hasn't been the case in Montgomery County, Va., which uses an alternative method called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports. The approach includes identifying triggers and creating a plan to prevent and address disruptive or dangerous behavior.

Some federal lawmakers want to restrict the practice to emergency situations and forbid schools from isolating students, but their proposed legislation has stalled. Parents of students who've been restrained at school continue to speak out against the practice.

Even when severe physical injury hasn’t occurred, many report that their children experienced increased anxiety and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after being restrained at school. One mother quoted in the report believes her autistic son "has psychological damage" since being restrained. "I do, too," she said.