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As a means of discipline, children - usually kids in special education - are being tied, taped, handcuffed or pinned down by adults. At times they're locked in secluded rooms and left for hours. And in some cases, children have died or been injured. Today, a congressional committee will be looking at what a new government report says is a widespread problem in schools. NPR's Joseph Shapiro has more.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Annette Maldonado picked up the phone one day last February. The call was from her son's middle school in San Antonio. Moses, a special education student who's 11, was having a bad day and she needed to come to the school to pick him up. When she arrived, she passed by the office of the school's security officer.
Ms. ANNETTE MALDONADO (Son is special education student): And the door was halfway open and I seen Moses handcuffed to the chair, a wooden chair, by one hand. And Moses was crying.
SHAPIRO: Maldonado told the school police officer to take the handcuffs off her child.
Ms. MALDONADO: It really crushed me, broke my heart, because he's not an animal. He's a human being.
SHAPIRO: Moses has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disorder. That day, he was removed from his special education classroom after he cursed a teacher and threw a pen that landed harmlessly. The security officer said Moses became agitated and started hitting his head on the door, so she handcuffed him.
The San Antonio independent school district says that's the proper action for when a child becomes a danger to himself or to others. But Maldonado says she didn't see her son banging his head and his only visible injury was bruising and bleeding caused by the tight handcuffs.
Ms. MALDONADO: He was really crying and he's little for his - he's real skinny. The way the handcuffs are they had them so tight that you could see, like, with the cuts and the bleeding.
SHAPIRO: This week, Moses is taking a bus across town to a new school. And this morning a congressional committee is taking a look at the practice of using restraints like handcuffs, as well as putting students in seclusion rooms.
Congressman George Miller is the chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor.
Representative GEORGE MILLER (Democrat, California): Well, I think what this hearing 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.
SHAPIRO: The California Democrat asked the Government Accountability Office to look at the extent of the problem. Its report, which will be released at today's hearing, finds there are no federal laws that say when restraint and seclusion can be used and few state guidelines for teachers and administrators. But the report found the practice is widespread.
It looked at records in two states, Texas and California, that require schools to report when restraint and seclusion are used. In one school year in those two states alone there were more than 33,000 cases.
Representative MILLER: I was also stunned by how young some of these children were: four, five, six, seven, eight years old — some of whom had died. And really, this is a very sad, very tragic report.
SHAPIRO: There've been deaths when large adults pinned down agitated children to try to calm them down but, instead, accidentally suffocate them. One seven-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 hung himself and died.
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 is a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He's looked at studies and says there's almost no data to suggest whether secluding or restraining kids with autism, mental health issues or other disabilities 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.
Professor REECE PETERSON (University of Nebraska-Lincoln): 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. So I think the issue is trying to ensure that they're only used to improve safety.
SHAPIRO: There are a growing number of school districts that have reported good success by using alternative ways of dealing with behavior problems. As a result, some groups that represent kids with disabilities and their parents are calling for a ban on the use of all restraints and seclusion.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
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