B.A., a second-grader at an elementary school in Alabama, has autism and doesn’t know how to verbally communicate.
While in class one day, B.A. began to scream and wouldn’t stop when her teacher asked her to be quiet.
B.A.’s teacher asked a classroom aide to restrain her. The aide took B.A. to a bathroom, tied her to a chair and left her there unsupervised.
When the teaching aide returned to the bathroom sometime later to check on B.A., she had flipped the chair over, was hanging by the restraints and had urinated on herself.
A report released last week by the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program relates this story about B.A. as an example of the harm that can result from the use of seclusion and restraint in public schools.
Alabama is one of 19 states that do not have laws regulating the use of seclusion and restraint in public schools, according to the report by ADAP, a federally mandated program that seeks to protect and expand the rights of Alabamians with disabilities.
The report claims that seclusion and restraint are used disproportionately on children with disabilities. It cites more than a dozen incidents of restraint and seclusion being used on students with disabilities in Alabama schools in the past three years and calls for a ban on the use of seclusion, chemical restraints, mechanical restraints and prone restraints.
“Our goal, among others, is to see reform in the use of restraint,” said Nancy Anderson, a staff attorney for ADAP. “Some forms of restraint, like prone restraints — where a person is forced face-downward onto a surface, should be outright banned. That’s particularly dangerous because that person can asphyxiate.
“We would also like to require that record-keeping be kept, so if there’s a lot of restraint going on in a school, we can find out what’s going on,” she said. “What gets accounted for gets paid attention to.”
At a congressional hearing on May 19, parents and education officials from around the country shared reports about hundreds of students who have been abused through the use of seclusion and restraint in public schools. After the hearing, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan asked state school chiefs to address the issue.
Anderson said the Alabama Department of Education has already begun considering how to enhance the safety and behavioral needs of students when it comes to seclusion and restraint practices.
“Prevention is key,” Anderson said. “Train teachers and staff on how to defuse the situation before it escalates to a place where a teacher feels like restraint must be used.”
Like most school systems in the state, the Tuscaloosa city and county school systems don’t have policies on how to use seclusion and restraint. However, each system strongly encourages prevention and the use of trained personnel to handle a situation in which a student gets out of control.
“We do not have a policy on restraint; however, in every school there is a school plan, which we tell personnel what to do in certain situations,” said Ruth Graves, supervisor of special education for the Tuscaloosa County School System.
“We handle each incident case-by-case,” she said, adding that if they know certain students are prone to behaviors that could lead to them or others being hurt, they put measures in place to deal with the situation.
“We also train staff on how to handle those situations in extreme circumstances,” she said.
Graves said teachers and other personnel at schools throughout the county are trained on how to use de-escalation methods, which are the first steps they use to deal with out of control students.
“We start with de-escalation procedures, then move to a more restricted restraint if needed, which may include physical restraint,” Graves said. “We totally frown on [physical restraint] unless it’s by trained personnel. So we call a trained personnel in to handle it.”
Debbie Anderson, the director of special education for the Tuscaloosa City School System, said personnel in the city schools use a similar approach, but they base their methods on an established behavior correction model.
“The Tuscaloosa City School System is the largest system in the state to implement ‘Positive Behavior Support Interventions’ for all students,” Debbie Anderson said in a written statement. “If a student is in need of assistance, the assistance is provided by a staff member who has been trained by a certified interventionist. The training includes restraint procedures as well as de-escalation techniques.”