Report: Discipline Methods Endanger Disabled Kids

Angellika Arndt smiles at her 7th birthday party.

Seven-year-old Angellika Arndt died in 2006 when she suffocated while being restrained by two adult staff at the Rice Lake Day Treatment Center in Wisconsin. Courtesy of the Coalition Against Institutionalized Child Abuse hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the Coalition Against Institutionalized Child Abuse

A large number of schools use potentially dangerous methods to discipline children, particularly those with disabilities in special education classes, a report from Congress' investigative arm finds.

In some cases, the Government Accountability Office report notes, children have died or been injured when they have been tied, taped, handcuffed or pinned down by adults or locked in secluded rooms, often to be left for hours at a time.

The report looking at restraint and seclusion in schools will be released Tuesday at a hearing by the House Committee on Education and Labor. Committee Chairman George Miller, who asked for the GAO report, says it begins to give lawmakers a sense of the frequent use of those methods.

Only five states require schools to report when restraint and seclusion are used. The congressional investigatory group looked at records in two of them — Texas and California — and found that in the 2007-08 school year alone, there were more than 33,000 cases.

Many of the children have cognitive disabilities, mental health issues, autism, attention deficit disorder and other disabilities.

"This hearing," Miller says, "will show us is that, in fact, every year in schools in the United States, hundreds and hundreds of children are the victims of abuse, and in some cases I would say almost torture."

Some deaths have occurred when large adults pinned down agitated children to try to calm them but, instead, accidentally suffocated them. One 7-year old girl died that way in Wisconsin. She was restrained because she was fidgeting and blowing bubbles in her milk.

In another case, a 13-year-old boy left alone in a seclusion room hanged himself and died.

"I was also stunned by how young some of these children were: 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 years old — some of whom had died," says Miller, a California Democrat. "And really, this is a very sad, a very tragic report."

Should Such Discipline Be Used?

Other recent reports by legal groups representing children with disabilities and their parents have shown the same problems. In January, the National Disability Rights Network reported that "children with disabilities are being victimized in our nation's schools at the hands of the professionals who are entrusted to keep them safe." And earlier this month, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates reported that in more than 70 percent of cases, families say they had not given teachers consent to use such discipline.

The issue has gotten the attention of the White House. On Monday, Kareem Dale, the White House assistant for disability policy, invited leaders of disability groups to the White House next Monday to discuss the issue.

Miller wants Congress to consider passing federal restrictions on the use of restraint and seclusion. And that raises the question: When — if ever — should such discipline be used?

Reece Peterson, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has looked at studies and says there's almost no data to suggest whether secluding or restraining children does any good.

But, he says, for the most part, educators agree that sometimes teachers need to seclude or restrain children who are at risk of hurting themselves or others.

"We wouldn't consider banning handcuffs altogether from the police department, I don't suppose. But yet we know that they can also be abused, and they are occasionally," says Peterson, who is scheduled to testify at the hearing. "So I think the issue is trying to ensure that they're only used to improve safety."

Teacher Training

Some groups that represent children with disabilities and their parents have called for a ban on the use of all restraints and seclusion. Barb Trader of TASH, a grass-roots advocacy group, notes that a growing number of school districts have reported success using alternative ways of dealing with problem behaviors.

The practice, called "positive behavior support," is "not rocket science," Trader says. The idea is to train teachers to recognize the things that agitate disabled children, especially ones that have difficulty speaking or communicating, and then act on the source of the problem.

"If you figure out what's causing the behavior in the first place," she says, "you can eliminate the cause or you can change the cause or you can structure the environment in such a way where the child won't have a need to exhibit the behavior."

For example, she says, "If a student gets hungry at quarter to 12 and they don't have verbal expression, and you don't know what's going on and then they act out because they're hungry, if you feed them at 11:30, then you've removed the cause for the behavior and the behavior doesn't exist. And we know that works because there's been lots and lots of research."

Teachers want more training in this kind of technique, says Lisa Thomas of the American Federation of Teachers, a teachers union with more than 1.4 million members.

"The ideal is to have school staff trained," says Thomas, "which means to go through role-play situations, going through crisis scenarios on how to handle students and de-escalate an explosive situation."

But because of school funding issues or unclear guidance for states and school districts, few teachers get this training — or get adequate training. "Sometimes, it's nothing more than a video and 15 to 30 minutes of conversations," says Thomas. "And I think many of them walk away hoping and praying they're never involved in those types of situations."

'He's Not An Animal'

In San Antonio, parent Annette Maldonado thinks her son's teachers need more training. In February, she got a call from the boy's middle school. She was told her 11-year-old son, Moses, was having a bad day and she needed to come pick him up. When she arrived, she passed by the office of the school's security officer. Inside, she saw Moses, handcuffed to a chair and crying.

"It really crushed me, broke my heart," Maldonado says. "Because he's not an animal. He's a human being."

Moses has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disorder. That day, he was removed from his special education classroom after he and his classmates were told to write letters to her about their poor behavior. When some of the students complained about the teacher in their letters, the assistant principal and school police officer were summoned to the classroom.

According to the school police report, Moses shouted to them, "You don't listen to us anyway," cursed, and threw a pen that landed harmlessly. The security officer took him out of the classroom and told him he wouldn't get the end-of-the-day snack of peanuts he usually got for good behavior.

The report says Moses became agitated. When he started hitting his head on a door hinge in her office, the security officer handcuffed him. The San Antonio Independent School District says that's the proper action when a child becomes a danger to himself or to others.

But Maldonado says she didn't see Moses banging his head, and his only visible injury was bruising and bleeding caused by the handcuffs. The security officer had to tighten them because Moses is so scrawny, he had slipped his hand out of the handcuffs.

This week, Moses is taking a bus across town to a new school.

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