Special education schools designed to heal are harming our most vulnerable population. Special needs kids in any program are at a greater risk for being neglected emotionally and academically. The risk increases in an out of district placement where transparency is low.
Students with verbal deficits and complex disorders who have failed in the mainstream are not equipped to advocate for themselves. Parents trust the alternative program, because they have little choice. Once enrolled in a special education school, the fragile student, already marred by repeated failures, is guaranteed to either witness violent restraints used on a classmate, or experience it firsthand.
According to Connecticut’s Child Advocate, Jeanne Milstein, “Restraints are .always dangerous and always destructive.” Milstein was reacting to the latest alleged incident of a 15-year old special-needs student (Child Restraint Injury Investigated Hartford Courant, 3/20/10). The male student enrolled at High Road School in Wallingford, Connecticut, was restrained by staff members in a time-out room. The restraints were not done properly and student’s ear was “essentially ripped off” and he sustained multiple head injuries. The particulars of the case sound disturbingly similar to the hundreds of cases released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO 2009 Report on Seclusion and Restraints).
Any therapeutic approach (including positive behavior supports) is trumped by the abuse of power associated with restraints and isolation. What should be glaringly apparent is that the risk of injury, both physical and psychological, far outweigh any rationale for including restraints and seclusion as part of a special education program’s behavior modification plan.
Nevertheless, special education schools across the country showcase their services as therapeutic, even though the program’s leverage is drawn from aversive methods (restraints and seclusion). Northwest Village School in Plainville, CT for instance, has a seclusion room in each classroom. The Grace S. Webb School in Hartford, CT has isolation rooms across the hall from the classrooms. Many of the restraints happen in isolation where the risk of abuse is elevated. Restriction and restraint is not the exception, but the rule.
Kids that attend therapeutic schools have been through the mill and are diagnosed with some of the most complex and challenging disorders. Healing is what they need, a safe place. Students referred to out of district placements are not able to access their education in the mainstream, and so the state pays up to $100,000 per year for an alternative placement.
Parents, who are desperate, sold on the wrap-around services, individualized instruction, small classrooms and positive behavior supports, acquiesce, despite possible misgivings.
Parents should know that accountability is poor. Connecticut’s Department of Child and Family spokesman Josh Howroyd’s assures that “If there is an allegation that a student is being abused or neglected by an education professional…under legal requirements it would have to be reported to DCF.” More than likely, in Connecticut and elsewhere, no one will tell.
The disabled child is not always able to articulate what is happening to him. Alma Vargas, the mother of the special-needs student at High Road School, was “horrified” when she saw her son. Her reaction is not unusual. Often times, parents are not aware of what’s really going on inside. A state official at the Connecticut Bureau of Special Education had to refer to the regulations when asked how often the state visited a school. After a pause, she returned with the answer: “five years.”
Advocates are applauding the latest bill passed by the house, March 3, 2010– H.R. 4247, which prohibits the use of restraints and seclusion only if there is a perceived “imminent danger.” The problem persists in the ambiguity of a perceived threat. What could Alma Vargas’s son have been doing to warrant having his ear ripped off and multiple head injuries?
H.R. 4247 bans duct taping body parts to chairs and withholding bathroom privileges and food, but it still allows two grown adults to restrain a 15-year old student with half the body weight. H.R. 4247 requires documentation of incidents. Yet, some states, such as Connecticut, have already been required to document incidents. Particulars are omitted, ironically, to protect the student’s privacy. The bill bans the use of pharmaceuticals to control behavior that has not been approved by prescribing doctor. But, the potent medications prescribed happen under the auspices of the consulting psychiatrist employed by the school.
H.R. 4247 leaves too much wiggle room.
Restraint is antithetical to therapy. Milstein’s remarks that “Restraints are 100 percent of the time a violent interaction between two human beings…” should not go unheeded. If we are to ensure the humane treatment and healing of our most defenseless citizens, restraints and seclusion need to be banned from all special education programs.