GAO Report Finds Hundreds of Allegations of Abusive and Deadly Uses of Seclusion and Restraint in Schools

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A new government report released today found hundreds of allegations that schoolchildren have been abused, and some even died, as a result of inappropriate uses of seclusion and restraint in classrooms. These abusive practices were used disproportionately on children with disabilities.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office, which conducted the first government investigation specifically into schools’ use of these practices at the request of U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, testified about its findings at a committee hearing today. Their report examined ten of these cases in detail; in four of them, these abuses were fatal. Two parents of victims in these cases also testified, including a mother whose foster son died as a result.
“GAO’s report shows that in too many cases, a child’s life wound up being threatened even though that child was not a threat to others,” said Miller. “This behavior, in some instances, looks like torture. The current situation is unacceptable and cannot continue.”

Seclusion, as the term is used in this context, means the act of involuntarily confining a student in an area by himself. Restraint is used to restrict an individual’s freedom of movement. As GAO explained today, restraint can become fatal when it blocks air to the lungs. In some of the cases examined, ropes, duct tape, chairs with straps and bungee cords were used to retrain or isolate young children.

Unlike in hospitals, other health care facilities and most non-medical community-based facilities that receive federal funding, there are currently no federal laws that restrict the use of seclusion and restraint in public or private schools. State regulation and oversight varies greatly. Nineteen states have no laws governing the appropriate use of seclusion and restraint in schools.

“Cedric struggled as he was being held in his chair, so the teacher put him in a face down, or in a prone restraint, and sat on him,” said Toni Price, whose son Cedric was killed after a teacher restrained him and laid on top of him for trying to leave his classroom. “He struggled and said repeatedly: ‘I can’t breathe.’  Shortly after that, he stopped speaking and he stopped struggling.”

In half of the cases GAO studied, the teachers or school staff involved with the abuse continued to teach, either in the same school system or a new one.

Although Cedric’s death was ruled a homicide, the teacher involved continues to teach students with disabilities, only now in Virginia, a different state than where Cedric was killed. GAO said today that they have referred the case to the Virginia Department of Education. Today the American Association of School Administrators announced that the school district is investigating the case and the teacher has been placed on leave.

GAO also found that, more often than not, teachers and staff who used seclusion and restraint in abusive ways had not been properly trained. These practices were often being used as a routine disciplinary tactic, rather than in response to an emergency.

Ann Gaydos was never told that teachers were using restraint tactics on her daughter, Paige, until she came home with bruises:

“Within a week at her new school, she came home bruised and told me, ‘Mommy, my teacher hurt me and I couldn’t breathe.’ We were shocked that we had not been informed by the school of this use of force that had injured our daughter, and that such force could so easily be used for something as small as playing with a loose tooth in time out.”

A school aide who came forward to warn Paige’s parents that this abuse was happening to other students was ostracized by fellow staff.

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It is impossible to determine the full extent to which seclusion and restraint practices are used in schools because there is no centralized reporting system. The few states that do collect data suggest these methods are used frequently. During the last school year alone, Texas and California documented over 33,000 incidents in which seclusion and restraint were used on students in public and private schools.

“Since these reports are often the result of parent complaints or media reports, we do not know how many times these procedures are inappropriately employed with students,” said Dr. Reece L. Peterson, a Professor of Special Education at the University of Nebraska. “Yet there does appear to be a substantial number of these situations, and they appear to be scattered across the United States.”  

Yesterday, the Obama administration indicated it plans to meet with stakeholders to address these abuses.

Miller said that today’s hearing makes clear that legislation is needed to keep students safe.

“We plan to look at this closely, with the Obama administration, to determine whether federal guidance is warranted. In light of this report, we encourage leaders of all of our nation’s schools who are working hard every day to educate our kids to immediately review their policies regarding restraint and seclusion.”

Miller requested the GAO investigation in January 2009, after the National Disability Rights Network released a report highlighting these abuses.