Rob Zimmerman’s son Jack is the kind of smart, happy child who loved school. But two years ago, Jack’s dad says, that suddenly changed. When the now 11-year-old moved to another special-ed classroom at his Williamson County school, Zimmerman says Jack’s new teacher did not believe he was “as much autistic as he was ornery.”
The teacher told the family that Jack was “trying to trick her.” Jack’s behavior changed, as he began to dread school and act out—screaming and spiraling out of control.
Zimmerman and his wife were shocked to learn why: Jack’s teachers had taken him down the hall to a janitor’s closet, placed him inside and shut the door, leaving the boy to sit alone in the dark for up to three hours at a time on more than one occasion. “They said he liked it better when it was dark,” an animated Zimmerman told a group of state lawmakers Tuesday. “We’re talking about human life—my son’s life,” Zimmerman said.
And it wasn’t long before Jack told his parents that his teachers were also “umphing him,” describing the groaning sound his teachers made as they held him down for “ornery” behavior. In his own way, Jack alerted his parents to a growing problem in special-ed classrooms all over the state: the unreported, undocumented use of seclusion and restraint.
Jack’s case is rare in the sense that he was able to tell his parents he had been restrained and stuffed into a closet that his father says school employees called a “calming room.” Many autistic children are not as verbally developed as Jack and are therefore incapable of reporting abuse. Often, these are children who, as Zimmerman puts it, are “set up for abuse.”
After reports like Zimmerman’s began to trickle in, the Disability Coalition on Education (DCE), a statewide organization of educators, advocacy groups and families, reviewed state law and found that there are no guidelines to regulate how—or if—schools should report such incidents or document how often they occur.
To push state lawmakers to draft legislation to require such oversight, representatives from several advocacy organizations for the disabled and mentally ill met Tuesday with a House-Senate study committee. They discussed the methods of restraint and seclusion now used with Tennessee special-ed students.
The committee also heard a tearful Gary Hassell talk about his son, a special-education student with autism at Oakmont Elementary in Dickson County, who had been physically restrained, face-down, on the classroom floor. School employees held his son down for an hour in what is called the “prone” position, a controversial hold that some experts say can result in asphyxia in as few as six minutes.
Similar methods of seclusion and restraint have led to the deaths of two teens at Chad Youth Enhancement Center, a residential treatment facility for troubled youth just outside of Clarksville (“Handle With Care,” Nov. 8) and have been key components in claims of abuse and neglect at Hermitage Hall, a Nashville private residential facility that treats male sex offenders (“Bad Medicine,” Dec. 13).
State records for Chad and Hermitage Hall, both of which are licensed by the state’s Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities (DMHDD), describe hundreds of cases where young residents are physically restrained, often violently, by facility staff. Neither DMHDD nor the Department of Children’s Services finds anything out of the ordinary or troubling about these incidences, according to interviews with officials there, and Gov. Phil Bredesen’s office also has been unswayed by reports of abuses at these juvenile facilities, directing questions back to the departments.
But Tennessee public schools are not required to report incidents of seclusion and restraint to the state—or even to parents such as Zimmerman. Carol Westlake, the executive director of the Tennessee Disability Coalition, told the study committee that, while state law requires in-patient facilities and residential juvenile programs to report how often such incidents occur, public schools remain one of the only places in the state without that mandate.
And, while facilities such as Chad and Hermitage Hall purport to have stringent requirements for teaching workers how to properly administer restraint holds, schools are not legally required to train employees.
DCE Chair Holly Lu Conant Rees says her organization has repeatedly requested a copy of the Metro schools’ policy on seclusion and restraint but has received nothing.
Conant Rees tells the Scene that her organization has started to collect data from parents across the state to push state lawmakers to draft legislation.
Thirty families, several of whom have students in Metro public schools, completed a DCE survey saying that their children have experienced multiple incidents of restraint and seclusion in the classroom. DCE describes the findings as “uniformly disturbing.”
Of those families reporting incidents to DCE, 40 percent said school staffers injured their children, who showed signs of bruising, contusions, abrasions and nail and grip marks. And 60 percent of families reported that their children experienced significant psychological and behavioral setbacks after being restrained or secluded. The children had acted out with violent tantrums and experienced anxiety, night terrors and psychosis.
It’s a familiar story to parents like Zimmerman, who says it only takes one encounter with a “bad apple” in the special-education classroom to change a child’s life forever. “If you don’t have documentation, you don’t have accountability.”
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