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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

We're going to take a look now at a controversial practice in public schools - secluding and restraining children when they become agitated. Mostly this happens to children with disabilities or special needs. Sometimes when they are upset, they can be violent. To calm or control them, teachers might isolate them in a separate room or restrain them with a belt or handcuffs. NPR's Joseph Shapiro explains why some parents and federal officials want to limit the practice.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Heather Luke is waiting for her son Carson to come home from school.

HEATHER LUKE: Yeah, this might be Carson. Hello. Hey.

SHAPIRO: Carson is 13. He has autism. He's brought the solar powered oven he made in science class to show his mother.

CARSON LUKE: We needed newspaper, tinfoil and clear wrap and a cardboard box and that's about it.

SHAPIRO: Carson's at a new school that he likes. But three years ago, his mother got an urgent call to come to his old school in Virginia and found her son in pain with his hand wrapped in gauze. She rushed him to the Emergency Room.

H. LUKE: There was a huge gash, in the palm of the hand, where you could see what appeared to be the bone.

SHAPIRO: It was the bone. And the bone in his hand was broken. A report by local social service workers later absolved school officials of physical abuse. The report, based on the version of events from teachers and school officials, said Carson, then 10, got upset and through his shoes at a teacher and then hit and scratched her. Five adults restrained him and took the boy to a seclusion room. The metal door was closed - accidentally, school staff said - on his hand. It was March, so Carson never went back to that school.

H. LUKE: And I never ever received a phone call from anybody to say, hey, how's he doing?

SHAPIRO: New data show that the nation's public schools commonly restrain and seclude students with disabilities. NPR worked on this story with the investigative journalism group ProPublica. Reporters there compiled data from the U.S. Department of Education and found that public schools in the 2011 to 2012 school year reported that they restrained or secluded students 267,000 times. More than half the time, that meant adults held or pinned the child, and in 7,600 cases, a device was used like a belt or handcuffs. And the numbers are almost certainly higher. Many of the nation's largest school districts reported no use of seclusion or restraint. Dan Domenech is the Executive Director of the American Association of School Administrators, the group that represents school superintendents. He says school administrators say they need to restrain or seclusion sometimes for the safety of the child, for the safety of other children or for the safety of teachers and staff.

DAN DOMENECH: It's used when a child is, for example, in the process of clawing their eyes out or tearing their hair out or smashing their head up against the wall and they need to be restrained so that they can be stopped from hurting themselves.

SHAPIRO: But federal education officials see the issue differently - not simply as a school safety issue, but as a civil rights issue. Catherine Lhamon runs the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights. It's her office that started requiring schools to report when they seclude or restrain a student.

CATHERINE LHAMON: Better numbers would be that only a handful and no more are subject to restraint seclusion.

SHAPIRO: Because, too often, schools use restraint and seclusion to discipline students.

LHAMON: Where we remove a kid from a classroom, where we seclude the child or where we restrain the child, the message that we send is that the child has so little value that we won't even try to educate that student and instead we'll just restrain the student.

SHAPIRO: Another reason federal officials want schools to limit the practice is that sometimes kids get hurt. It angered Heather Luke when her 10-year-old's hand was broken. But she knows that sometimes parents of kids with disabilities face injuries that are worse.

H. LUKE: We all have heard the stories of kids in prone restraints that die. I mean, they're very scary as hell to hear those stories. Yeah, that could be us.

SHAPIRO: One congressional investigation counted hundreds of case of abuse, including at least 20 deaths. There've been legal restrictions on the use of restraint in other places that get federal funding, like nursing homes or state hospitals. Some lawmakers in Washington now are proposing legislation to strictly limit the use of restraint and to even ban the use of seclusion in public schools. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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