Restraint And Seclusion: Discipline Gone Too Far?

At some schools, unruly children are physically restrained or isolated in so-called seclusion rooms. Critics like investigative journalist Bill Lichtenstein say the methods are often abusive and must stop. He wrote about his own daughter's experience in an opinion piece for The New York Times. He talks with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we will hear more about the remarkable life of the late Russell Means, who led the American Indian movement of the 1970s and went on to a career in activism and acting. That's in just a few minutes.

But, first, it's time for our weekly parenting conversation and today we are talking about a disciplinary technique that some people feel has gotten out of hand. And, when it comes to disciplining children, you've probably heard of or used something called a time out. A lot of adults in many schools have turned to time out in place of physical methods, like hitting a child.

But, in some cases, critics say that a technique that is supposed to be humane is becoming extreme, that kids are being isolated and restrained in so-called seclusion rooms and the consequences for youth may be traumatic, especially for those with special needs.

Earlier this year, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said restraint or seclusion should never be used, except when children's behavior poses imminent danger to themselves or others. He wrote that as part of a resource guide for schools.

It's an issue that's caused deep personal concern to the investigative journalist and filmmaker, Bill Lichtenstein. He wrote about his own daughter's experience with seclusion. That opinion piece titled "A Terrifying Way to Discipline Children" was published in the New York Times in early September and he's with us now.

Thank you so much for joining us.

BILL LICHTENSTEIN: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: We're going to talk about your daughter's story in just a minute, but first...

LICHTENSTEIN: Sure.

MARTIN: I just wanted to ask you to describe exactly what you mean when you say seclusion rooms or restraint. What are we talking about here?

LICHTENSTEIN: The practices that involve either physically restraining a child by using a body or with some kind of a physical restraint, or putting them into a room and not allowing them to come out. When used in institutional settings, they are done by trained people. They're carefully regulated and documented when these things happen.

What's happened since 1970s, as children with different kinds of needs have migrated into the public, you know, mainstream school system, is that these practices have followed, but without the training, without the documentation. And so what you end up with is children throughout the country are being put in rooms and locked in for sometimes hours at a time, are being duct-taped to chairs, are being restrained with bungee cords and without the teachers or those involved having any training or, in many cases, as in our case, without parents being told.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about the very personal story that you shared in the New York Times piece.

LICHTENSTEIN: Sure.

MARTIN: This was six years ago, the period that you're talking about, but your daughter was a kindergartner and she was attending kindergarten at the Lexington public schools in the Boston area. And you say that she was kept in a seclusion room for up to an hour at a time over the course of...

LICHTENSTEIN: That's right.

MARTIN: ...three months. How did you find that out?

LICHTENSTEIN: I'll tell you. Let me just say one thing with regard to what you said in the introduction. Despite the use of the word discipline in the headline, nobody thinks that these practices should be used for disciplining children. And if they were, that would be bad enough. These are being put forward as therapeutic interventions to help children learn self-control, learn the skills to get through life in an educational setting, and that's why they're wholly inappropriate, but...

MARTIN: I think that's an important clarification, so I thank you for that.

LICHTENSTEIN: Sure. And the secretary...

MARTIN: So tell me...

LICHTENSTEIN: Yeah. The resource guides that the Department of Ed has put out - in our case, our daughter had some speech delays and language delays, but you know, she was a typical kid. And, some time in the fall of 2005, her behavior just started to unwind and it got worse. Tantrums, focusing on cartoons and movies where a dog might be taken off to the pound or someone might be locked in a room, and it continued until we found out what was going on with her, which was that she was regularly being locked in what - some dispute about this - but it's clearly a closet at the bottom of a basement stair. We filed a complaint and it was based on the school's records.

There's no question that she was in that room, locked, unable to see out of a window that was above her height, for an hour at a time. What the school has said is that they would put her in there for five minutes, set an egg timer and, if she hadn't calmed down, they would reset the egg timer for another five minutes and that could go on, as it did, for up to 12 times it occurred.

MARTIN: A lot of people say, well, it's better than being hit with a belt or it's better than being sent home or - what's so terrible? So you tell me. What's so terrible?

LICHTENSTEIN: Again, it wasn't intended to be punishment, and even if it was, for the things she was put in there for; throwing a book, running in the halls, you know, all documented in a complaint which is online. I don't think that putting a child in a room where they are literally kicking and screaming and begging to be let out and they can't see out would be appropriate punishment - which I don't think the school's saying it was - nor what they are saying it was, which is a therapeutic intervention to help her calm down.

It's inappropriate and the long-term traumatic effects of it for this going on over months. She still has nightmares. You know, her play revolves around bigger animals confining little animals in boxes. During the period when we didn't know what was going on, she would take her dolls and put them in boxes and wrap rope around them and swing them around, this sort of thing.

And I think the toughest thing, Michel, and this is really, as a parent, what's so haunting about it is I can't say to my daughter, look, the world is not a place where big people with impunity can come put their hands on little people and drag them off or hurt them because that's not her experience.

MARTIN: We're talking about the practice of restraining or isolating kids, particularly in so-called seclusion rooms, as a way to modify their behavior. We're particularly talking about young children or children with special needs.

LICHTENSTEIN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: We're speaking with journalist and filmmaker Bill Lichtenstein about this. He wrote about this for The New York Times, writing about an experience that his daughter had when she was in kindergarten in the Boston area.

Now you alluded to a disagreement with the Lexington Public Schools...

LICHTENSTEIN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...about this experience. And I wanted to mention that the Boston Globe investigated the story further and The New York Times later published an editor's note recounting some factual disputes that the school system has with your account. And we did, you know, as you would imagine...

LICHTENSTEIN: I (unintelligible). Right.

MARTIN: ...we're journalist too...

LICHTENSTEIN: No. No. No.

MARTIN: ...reach out to the Lexington Public Schools for comment.

LICHTENSTEIN: Sure.

MARTIN: And I'll just play a short clip from their communications representative, Karen Schwartzman.

KAREN SCHWARTZMAN: What he described to be his daughter's experience was not her experience at all. He fabricated a scenario for the day in question that he describes to create a vivid picture that would be disturbing to anyone. So the school department was quite upset about it. The parents of students in Lexington, of course, were upset about it. And we are only interested in setting the record straight.

MARTIN: So there's a dispute...

LICHTENSTEIN: Of course.

MARTIN: ...if you would...

LICHTENSTEIN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...you know, would respond to that.

LICHTENSTEIN: Ms. Schwartzman is a crisis manager. I've responded to the fact that she's called me a liar and said I fabricated things which I certainly have not. And it's a very, you know, that's a very serious charge, and she's had no facts to back it up of any kind. But let's look at the facts that she's offering and what the dispute here is that she is so concerned about. So she says that I reported that my daughter was in a timeout room that was in a basement, that it was a mop closet, that it was dark, it was locked and it was not appropriate for children and that I was wrong about those facts. Well, here's the facts. This room is at the bottom of the basement stairwell at 146 Maple Street in Lexington, which is now the school administration building. And you can see the photos online. We've posted them at terrifyingdiscipline.com. What you see is a small room with blue gym pads hanging on the walls, a bare light bulb from the ceiling, an exposed cement floor. You can see the file folder on which someone wrote, don't touch, and put it over the window when my daughter was found in there, rather than going in to help her. So I think your listeners can judge for themselves by looking at the photos. And the complaint is online as well. If you read 20 pages, the accounts of what happened to my daughter are harrowing.

MARTIN: Something happened to your daughter that has caused her great distress.

LICHTENSTEIN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: But apart from that, I think there's sort of the broader question of...

LICHTENSTEIN: No question...

MARTIN: ...of whether have you found in your reporting that these techniques are being used in other places and how widely and with whom?

LICHTENSTEIN: This is a matter that has been underreported. George Miller, representative from California, had the GAO in 2009 do a national survey of what was going on, and they found 20 students who died in restrained, in seclusion situations. And horrific stories, four-year-olds, you know, being physically tied to chairs and this sort of thing. People have experienced these things, for whatever reason not come forward. There's not been any kind of support system to encourage them to come forward. And I think that this story has connected a lot of dots for people.

MARTIN: After your piece was published in The New York Times, a 17-year-old with Asperger's syndrome came out...

LICHTENSTEIN: Heartbreaking.

MARTIN: ...with his story. And his name is Robert Ernst. And he talked about being put in a seclusion room when he was an elementary school student at Lexington Public Schools. And this is a clip of an interview that he did with a local news station in that area, WCVB.

ROBERT ERNST: It was definitely a feeling of powerlessness to be left in there and not have any way to escape.

MARTIN: Do you have the sense that these kinds of techniques are used more often with special needs students than others?

LICHTENSTEIN: The first data available ever from the Department of Ed Office of Civil Rights, it was just released in March, and it indicated that of 40,000 cases they found 70 percent involved kids with special needs, whereas those children only represent 12 percent of the population of students. They also found that African-American students and Hispanic students are being restrained and secluded at many times their numbers in the general population. So, yes, it's a big problem. It's particularly for students with special-ed needs. And I was very moved to hear Robert's story because for years we have been aware that other children might have been involved and he was the first, you know, child that came forward after I wrote the story and I give him a lot of praise for coming forward.

MARTIN: I'm puzzled by the whole hour aspect of it because I don't know that anybody who is taking care of a five-year-old would leave a five-year-old alone for an hour at all. And I take the point that there's a dispute over whether it was five minutes and five minutes and five minutes and five minutes. But I just don't know any standard by which people think that that's an acceptable thing to do, unless a child is asleep. But I've never seen a child discipline book or a child behavior book or - do you know what I mean - that says that you'd leave a five-year-old alone for an hour. And I just have to wonder whether this is that these people feel that they are overwhelmed and that they just lose track of time.

LICHTENSTEIN: An hour is on the short end. There are many documented cases of kids being put into a room for the day. And in fact, in the state of Georgia, where a 13-year-old hung himself after being left alone, they outlawed these practices in the entire state, and Senator Tom Harkin brought them in in July to testify that you don't need these kinds of practices to work with kids. So Rose's case, as troubling as it is that she was in there for an hour, is really on the short end. There are many cases of kids simply being duct-taped to a chair or tied to a chair or put in a room like this and left there for the day. I cannot speculate why or how this is happening. I can tell you that teachers who really know what they're doing with kids - and as you can imagine, there are ways of engaging kids and motivating them. And the Department of Education has tons of alternative ways of dealing with kids that are best practice, they're known to work, they're not expensive, they're just simply engaging kids and helping them learn the skills they need, which is part of the educational process for these kids to negotiate, to, you know, control their behavior or to focus on the awards if they get the work done.

My daughter in that room, you know, there are federal issues. She wasn't being educated during that time and she certainly didn't learn anything about, you know, how to negotiate her way through life, if in fact running in the hall or throwing a book was what got her put in there.

MARTIN: How is she doing now?

LICHTENSTEIN: She called the other day to say she had hit it in the park - her first in the park grand slam in Little League and the next time was going over the fence. But, you know, there's a part of her that's still struggling with this. It's hard for her if we suggest that we might just want to center to a music school or - that's anxiety producing, the idea of being in a school. Or I was reading a play with her and I think one of the lines was, come with me or, you know, she tenses up. So she'll get through this. She's a strong, resilient kid but this has been very tough. And I think she had a lot of sense of outrage about this. And so I think the net positive for her is that this is out in the open because she's been, you know, I think incensed about this for some time.

MARTIN: What do you want to say to other parents?

LICHTENSTEIN: I would simply not be afraid to say to a school, do you restrain children? Do you put them in isolation rooms and if so, you know, under what circumstances? I certainly want to know if my child, you know, is involved.

MARTIN: Bill Lichtenstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and filmmaker. He recently wrote an article for The New York Times called "A Terrifying Way to Discipline Children." He joined us from Boston.

Bill Lichtenstein, thank you for speaking with us.

LICHTENSTEIN: Michel, thank you so much.

MARTIN: And our best to your daughter.

LICHTENSTEIN: Thank you.

MARTIN: And the story continues to develop. We are still in touch with Bill Lichtenstein and the Lexington Public Schools and we will update our coverage as the case progresses.

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