Disability advocates who have spent more than a year trying to convince Tennessee legislators about the troubling fact that special education students are being physically restrained, strapped to chairs and locked in janitor closets hit a small landmark last week as the state Senate passed a bill to address a growing problem in classrooms across the state.
Designed to limit the unchecked use of physical restraint and isolation, the bill offers only a few modest regulations. But disability advocates see the mere acknowledgment of the problem as “gargantuan,” considering their struggle to get lawmakers even to accept that teachers are using such methods on the most vulnerable of students.
Nearly 40 families across the state recently weighed in with horrific tales of the use of restraint and isolation in public schools in a survey commissioned by the state Disability Coalition on Education (DCE). Perhaps the most heart-wrenching tale was that of an 11-year-old autistic boy whose Williamson County teacher locked him in a dark janitor’s closet for up to three hours at a time on several occasions. The teacher even held him down in restraints for behavior she described as not “as much autistic as...ornery” (“Physical Education,” Jan. 24).
Teachers never told the boy’s family about the incidents. Once the otherwise happy boy began to dread school, and as his behavior escalated into unusual fits of screaming and acting out, the family knew something was up. Unlike many of his counterparts, the boy was eventually able to articulate what had transpired. Holly Lu Conant Rees, the director of DCE, says such stories, coupled with the well-publicized death of Omega Leach, made the danger of the ungoverned use of restraint impossible to ignore. A Philadelphia boy undergoing treatment at Chad Youth Enhancement Center, a Clarksville facility for troubled kids, Leach mysteriously died on the floor of his dorm room, away from the watchful eye of the facility’s surveillance cams. The state medical examiner ruled his death a homicide by strangulation after Chad counselors restrained and roughed him up.
Interestingly, the new Senate bill passed April 24 does little to protect kids such as Leach, perhaps because lawmakers see the children in these facilities as criminals. The bill, however, does establish guidelines for the use of restraint and isolation with special education students so long as they don’t have a rap sheet. Specifically, it prohibits schools from using chemical restraint via shots of sedatives to control violent behavior, noxious substances such as pepper spray, locked seclusion and prone restraint, a controversial hold method that can lead to asphyxia—none of which has been expressly outlawed by the state for disabled youth in private treatment facilities. It also requires schools, for the first time ever, to keep records of these incidents. But at this point, the bill gets a little hazy.
Though Sen. Diane Black, who sponsored the bill, says she and other members of the Senate Select Committee on Children and Youth were moved by testimony from special education parents, the original fiscal note for the bill, which Conant Rees put at a staggering $50 million, was too large to be viable. So training teachers on the proper use of restraint went out the window—along with many other provisions advocates had hoped for—in the quest to get the fiscal note down to $50,000, where it now remains.
But Black says the bill is a good starting point. “This at least brings consistency and does bring something that everybody is going to be using across the state, and that’s really important,” she says.
But is it enough to protect students? Conant Rees says the legislation does not completely ban the use of mechanical restraint. This is troublesome to the activist, who has seen students strapped to chairs with lap and shoulder belts or placed in stationary chairs as a means of classroom crowd control. Some of these contraptions look like a hybrid between a high-end toddler car seat and an electric chair, and at least one Tennessee family has told Conant Rees that their elementary-age child has spent hours on end in one of these chairs because teachers deemed the student “a runner.”
The law still allows teachers to restrain students, especially “in emergency situations, if necessary to assure the physical safety of the student or others nearby.” (That’s the same practice Chad officials supposedly followed, which clearly doesn’t work.) Schools would have to notify parents about such an incident. But for special needs students who may react more adversely to touch—some of whom don’t have the verbal skills to tell parents what happened—these actions can have an incredibly noxious effect.
Janice LeBel, a licensed psychologist who has worked 20 years in child and adolescent mental health, says restraint can be “a terrible thing,” especially for autistic children. “Their sensory acuity can be much more developed, and so the impact of restraint and seclusion can be much more powerful,” LeBel says. “You could be adding insult to injury.”
LeBel says any use of restraint or seclusion in classrooms is problematic. “It’s extraordinarily high-risk,” she says. “You don’t want to be using it capriciously. If mom and dad were to [restrain a child] at home, they would be explaining that behavior to a judge.”
Overall, the bill doesn’t do enough to ensure that the use of restraint is limited to emergency situations, which worries advocates. Too often they’ve seen such measures become a regular part of a child’s school day when used at a teacher’s discretion. The bill also does not define what constitutes an emergency situation.
The good news is that there’s still time to get it right—or at least to make marginal improvements. Before the bill takes effect, which Black says should happen before next school year, a rule-making committee will be established to pick up the pieces and to flesh out the details.
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