Q: First things first: What got you interested in this issue?
A: Last winter, the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) released a report detailing hundreds of cases where abusive uses of seclusion and restraint by school staff injured or traumatized schoolchildren, including cases where children were pinned to the floor, handcuffed, locked in closets and other horrific acts. To get a better sense of how widespread this abuse was and what protections children had, I asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate. Their work backed up what the NDRN and other groups have found: This abuse was happening in public and private schools around the country, it was happening disproportionately to students with disabilities, and in a number of cases, children were dying. The types of abuse these kids are suffering are so disturbing, you'd think these were stories about torture tactics used at prison camps. Instead they're happening to some of our youngest children, in our schools.
Q: Why focus on schools? Don't a lot of disabled children face much harsher handling elsewhere?
A: Currently, there are federal laws in place that restrict the use of restraint and seclusion to emergency situations for children in hospitals, community-based facilities and other facilities that receive federal health funding. But — and many people will be surprised to learn this — classrooms, where students spend the majority of their day, are not covered by these laws. It isn't acceptable for parents to treat their kids this way, and it isn't acceptable for staff in other facilities to treat kids this way. Why should our schools be any different?
As parents, when we send our children to school, we expect that they will be in safe, healthy environments. Our children deserve the same protections in schools that they receive in other settings. This is about making our classrooms safer for the entire school community: students, teachers and other staff.
Q: In testimony before your committee last May, a Texas mother told of how her 14-year-old foster child was smothered by his teacher, who'd placed him in a "therapeutic floor hold." Cases like this are extraordinarily rare. Why does Congress have to regulate all teachers' behavior on the basis of a few tragic cases?
A: Part of what GAO told us is that these tragedies are not as rare as we might think: There have been hundreds of abusive cases in recent years, and tens of thousands of restraint and seclusion incidents take place every year in our schools. This abuse is a nightmare for everyone involved — it hurts the victims, who can suffer long-term physical and emotional consequences; it hurts their classmates, who witness these terrifying incidents; and it hurts the rest of the teachers and staff, who are trying to give students a good education. As long as school systems continue to lack the tools they need to create good policies and properly train staff, these incidents will continue. Nothing in this bill stops teachers from maintaining order in the classroom — but it does say that it is against the law to use restraint and seclusion unless danger is imminent and there are no alternatives. Our first priority should be the well-being of our students. We don't think this is too much to ask of our schools.