Lawmakers Seek Halt To Abuses Of Disabled Kids In School : Shots - Health News Bills just introduced in the House and Senate aim to stop the use of restraint and seclusion to discipline disabled children in schools.
NPR logo Lawmakers Seek Halt To Abuses Of Disabled Kids In School

Lawmakers Seek Halt To Abuses Of Disabled Kids In School

Two investigatory reports earlier this year told disturbing stories of the harsh, and on occasion fatal, methods sometimes used to discipline disabled children in school. Now members of Congress are trying to stop the practice of relying on what's known as restraint and seclusion.

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

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Courtesy of the Coalition Against Institutionalized Child Abuse

Reps. George Miller, D-CA, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-WA, announced the legislation, flanked by parents of kids who've been subjected to such discipline.

Nicole Holden of Muskegon, Michigan, spoke of how she found out by accident, when she showed up at her 3-year-old son's preschool one day, that teachers were routinely tying the autistic boy to a chair for at least three hours a day.

When the chair tipped over and he got bruises, she said staff told her he'd fallen on the playground. "Ethan has autism," she said, holding back tears and noting her son, now four and at a new school, was sitting in the audience. "Ethan has a speech and language delay. So strapping him in a chair was literally torture to my son. He could not speak. He could not tell us as parents what was happening."

The Preventing Harmful Restraint and Seclusion in Schools Act would set federal standards that say physical restraints and seclusion can be used only as a last resort when a child's behavior puts the child or others in immediate danger.

Rep. McMorris Rodgers, who is also the mother of a son with Down Syndrome, noted that this is already the federal standard for hospitals. Although some disability rights groups have called for a total ban on restraints and seclusion, groups that represent educators say they are sometimes needed for safety reasons. That's why the proposed law would also require that staff be trained in how to use restraints and seclusion in a safe way. The law would outlaw some current practices, such as strapping kids to chairs or the use of restraints that restrict breathing.

Also, today, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-CT, introduced companion legislation in the Senate.

Last January, the National Disability Rights Network, a network of public attorneys who take on civil rights cases for the disabled, released a report that catalogued scores of cases where children had been injured, and sometimes even killed, by these methods of discipline.

Congressman Miller, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, then asked the Government Accountability Office to do its own investigation. And the congressional investigatory arm released a report in May that found abuses to be widespread across the country.

The GAO report found that few records are kept at the state level. The proposed law would require states to collect data and report each year to the U.S. Secretary of Education. Secretary Arne Duncan said last spring that he wants to hear from states about possible alternatives to using restraints and seclusion.

But two states--Texas and California--do require schools to report when restraint and seclusion are used. In one school year in those two states alone, the GAO reported, there were more than 33,000 cases.

Miller's committee also heard testimony about children who had died, including Toni Price's 14-year-old foster son Cedric Napoleon. Price testified Cedric died when the teacher at his Killeen, Texas, middle school restrained him by sitting on top of him.

Cedric, who'd been denied food by abusive parents, was kept from lunch as a punishment and, at 2:30 and hungry, he tried to leave the classroom without permission. "The findings were eye-opening and horrifying," Miller said today recalling the GAO report and the hearing as he introduced the bill. Over his shoulder was a blow up photo of a smiling Cedric.