Inside Clemson

Restrained at school: are disabled kids targeted?

By Joseph B. Ryan, Ph.D.

Each semester I receive a number of phone calls and emails from frantic parents across the U.S. asking for guidance on how to keep their child with physical and/or mental disabilities from being physically abused while in school. While the thought of abusing children with disabilities is reprehensible, the most disturbing aspect of these stories is that the parents are levying charges of abuse against the educators they entrusted the care and safety of their children with, due to the abusive use of seclusion and restraint procedures.

Having specialized in behavior management, I was asked to participate in a U.S. Congressional Briefing in support of the Keeping All Students Safe Act Senate Bill 2036 and HR Bill 1893. The intent of this legislation is to prevent the abusive use of seclusion (locking children in small rooms) and restraint (staff members holding a child to maintain physical control) in public schools. My testimony emphasized three critical points that I believe every educator, parent and legislator should be aware of, including the (1) over use of seclusion and restraint to manage disruptive students, (2) disproportionate use of seclusion and restraint on students with disabilities and minorities, and (3) that many schools have elected to embrace these dangerous non-evidence based procedures in lieu of safer research based practices for managing aggressive students.

While many parents are unaware these interventions even take place within their local schools, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) reported that more than 110,000 students were subjected to restraint and seclusion during the 2011-12 school year over a quarter million times. Aggravating matters, is that these procedures have been used for reasons other than what they were intended (e.g., imminent physical danger).  Instead, many parents, advocates and researchers have argued these highly restrictive interventions are being used in response to a variety of non-violent behaviors including noncompliance and leaving the assigned areas. In some instances, teachers have used these interventions excessively (e.g., 70 – 100 times) with challenging students despite being ineffective in reducing maladaptive behavior.

Another disheartening finding by the OCR is that seclusion and restraint are being disproportionally used with minorities and students with special needs. While children with disabilities represent only 12 percent of the student population, they represented 58 percent of those placed in seclusion, and 75 percent of all children who were physically restrained. Similar disproportional findings were reported among minority students.

Lastly, it simply defies logic that during the current emphasis on implementing evidence-based practices in classrooms, many schools have elected to embrace seclusion and restraint while ignoring safer research based practices for managing aggressive behaviors. There are a number of effective less restrictive alternatives, including: (a) Positive Behavioral Intervention Supports, (b) functional behavioral assessments, (c) crisis de-escalation strategies, and (d) curriculum based interventions designed to address many of the social and communication skill deficits exhibited by children with disabilities. Passage of the Keeping All Students Safe Act will help protect all students, especially children with disabilities and minorities, who are among the most vulnerable and at-risk students within our nation’s schools.

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Joe Ryan is a Professor of Special Education and serves as the associate director of research for the Eugene T. Moore School of Education. He is also the Editor of the journal Beyond Behavior. He has taught students with emotional and behavioral disorders (E/BD) from grades K through 12 across a variety of educational settings, including resource and self-contained classrooms, special day schools, and a residential treatment center. Professional interests include: Single Case Research, Behavior Management, Psychotropic Medications, Therapeutic Recreation, and Post Secondary Transition Services. Ryan has more than 50 publications, and frequently consults and speaks at national and international professional conferences. He has been interviewed and quoted by Anderson Cooper, CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other leading periodicals. He is the founder of ClemsonLIFE (Learning is for Everyone), a post secondary transition program for students with cognitive disabilities, as well as several adapative sports programs including: baseball (spring), soccer (fall) and equine therapy (year round).

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