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The Shocking Ways School Kids are Being Restrained, Isolated Against Their Will

A young boy with autism shattered bones in his hand and foot after educators grabbed him and shut him into a “scream room.”
 
 
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Photo Credit: Dennis Steen via Shutterstock.com

 

This story was co-published with NPR.

The room where they locked up Heather Luke's 10-year-old son had cinder block walls, a dim light and a fan in the ceiling that rattled so insistently her son would beg them to silence it.

Sometimes, Carson later told his mother, workers would run the fan to make him stop yelling. A thick metal door with locks—which they threw, clank-clank-clank—separated the autistic boy from the rest of the decrepit building in Chesapeake, Virginia, just south of Norfolk.

The room that officials benignly called the "quiet area" so agitated the tall and lanky blond boy that one day in March 2011, his mother said, Carson flew into a panic at the mere suggestion of being confined there after an outburst. He had lashed out, hitting, scratching and hurling his shoes. Staff members held him down, then muscled him through the hallway and attempted to lock him in, yet again.

But this time, the effort went awry. Staffers crushed Carson's hand while trying to slam the door. A surgeon later needed to operate to close the bleeding half-moon a bolt had punched into his left palm. The wound was so deep it exposed bone.

Carson's ordeal didn't take place in a psychiatric facility or juvenile jail. It happened at a public school.

For more than a decade, mental-health facilities and other institutions have worked to curtail the practice of physically restraining children or isolating them in rooms against their will. Indeed, federal rules restrict those practices in nearly all institutions that receive money from Washington to help the young—including hospitals, nursing homes and psychiatric centers.

But such limits don't apply to public schools.

Restraining and secluding students for any reason remains perfectly legal under federal law. And despite a near-consensus that the tactics should be used rarely, new data suggests some schools still routinely rely on them to control children.

The practices—which have included pinning uncooperative children facedown on the floor, locking them in dark closets and tying them up with straps, handcuffs, bungee cords or even duct tape—were used more than 267,000 times nationwide in the 2012 school year, a ProPublica analysis of new federal data shows. Three-quarters of the students restrained had physical, emotional or intellectual disabilities.

Children have gotten head injuries, bloody noses, broken bones and worse while being restrained or tied down— in one Iowa case, to a lunch table. A 13-year-old Georgia boy hanged himself after school officials gave him a rope to keep up his pants before shutting him alone in a room.

At least 20 children nationwide have reportedly died while being restrained or isolated over the course of two decades, the Government Accountability Office found in 2009.

"It's hard to believe this kind of treatment is going on in America," says parent and advocate Phyllis Musumeci. A decade ago, her autistic son was restrained 89 times over 14 months at his school in Florida. "It's a disgrace."

The federal data shows schools recorded 163,000 instances in which students were restrained in just one school year. In most cases, staff members physically held them down. But in 7,600 reports, students were put in "mechanical" restraints such as straps or handcuffs. (Arrests were not included in the data.) Schools said they placed children in what are sometimes called "scream rooms" roughly 104,000 times.

Those figures almost certainly understate what's really happening. Advocates and government officials say underreporting is rampant. Fewer than one-third of the nation's school districts reported using restraints or seclusions even once during the school year.