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Abuse, Restraints and Seclusion in School
Use of Restraints as Discipline l Physical & Sexual Abuse l Time Out/Seclusion
Positive Behavior Support (PBS) l Protection & Advocacy
Resources l Publications l Cases l Legislative Advocacy

Webinar: Students with Disabilities and the Use of Restraint and Seclusion in K-12 Public Schools - technical assistance to support children with disabilities and support the needs of those within school systems serving students. (OCR and OSERS, 2020)

The USED Initiative to Address the Inappropriate Use of Restraint and Seclusion to Protect Children with Disabilities, Ensure Compliance with Federal Laws. US Department of Education. (2019)

The Dear Colleague letter (DCL) and Question and Answer Document (Fact Sheet) - additional information about the legal limitations on use of restraint or seclusion to assist school districts in meeting their obligations to students with disabilities. (2016)

Eight Million Dollar Settlement - Largest Ever Reported! - Abuse by Spec Ed Teacher! On December 18, 2013 the Antioch School Board (California) approved a settlement because one of their teachers abused a number of children in her special education class. Click here for our webpage about that case, newspaper clippings and a copy of the Complaint filed in the U. S. District Court. In January 2014, a second $8 million settlement with the Brentwood Union School District. Two Contra Costa, CA School Districts will pay nearly $17 Million to local families in one year.

How Safe Is The Schoolhouse? An Analysis of State Seclusion and Restraint Laws and Policies (PDF) (2019) by Jessica Butler. This Report has been updated to include changes made through July 1, 2019 to state restraint and seclusion laws and policies. The brief executive summary provides a quick bullet point overview of the information.

Restraint and Seclusion Resource Document. (May 2012, US DOE) Describes 15 principles to consider when states, localities, and districts develop policies and procedures which should be in writing on the use of restraint and seclusion.

Seclusions and Restraints (pdf) from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO-09-719T). Selected Cases of Death and Abuse at Public and Private Schools and Treatment Centers. Terstimony before the Committee on Education and labor, House of Representatives. 05/19/19 (Accessible text format).

Complaint filed in Disability Rights of NC v. Wake Co Bd of Ed and Robert Sturey in abuse & restraints case (pdf) 09/16/08

Children with disabilities are sometimes left open to potential abuse when those who are charged with their care do not understand the difference between "bad behavior" and "behavior as communication". The term "behavior as communication" refers to a child's effort to communicate dislikes, needs, desires, etc. but cannot do so because of a communication deficit (ie. no speech, limited speech). Sometimes happiness can look the same as sadness, anger the same as excitement...emotions can be very hard to distinguish.

When a child's "behavior" is seen merely as bad behavior and not as an effort to communicate, the child can become even more frustrated thus causing escalation. Adults who are not properly trained to distinguish these "behaviors" or to decipher the "communication" attempts can sometimes escalate the child to a critical point when the use of physical and/or mechanical restraint comes into play.

Imagine that you cannot express your thoughts in a way that others can easily understand. Now, imagine that you are a child who cannot communicate your fears, likes, dislikes, or pain. Imagine being misunderstood constantly. Imagine having others schedule every moment of your life without knowing what you would like to do. This is reality for some children. Is it any wonder that these children get frustrated?

It is essential that parents and school personnel realize that IDEA provides safeguards for these children. If a child's "behavior" gets in the way of his or her education (or that of others), certain steps must be taken in order to ensure FAPE.

"Something is Very Wrong When are Children are Unsafe at School," said
George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. On December 9, 2009, Congressman Miller and Cagresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) introduced the Preventing Harmful Restraint and Seclusion in Schools Act.

Use of Restraint as Discipline in Schools

Physical restraints are becoming more prevalent in public schools. Deciding whether or not to physically restrain a student requires an understanding of legal requirements, professional standards, and health and safety issues.

Dangerous Use of Seclusion and Restraints in Schools Remains Widespread and Difficult to Remedy: A Review of Ten Cases from Tom Harkin, Chairman, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

Sample Letter: Letter Requesting "No Restraint"

Learning From Each Other: Success Stories and Ideas for Reducing Restraint/Seclusion in Behavioral Health" (PDF) - Resource Guide Provides Practical Help in Creating a Culture of Safety, Respect, and Dignity.

Handcuffs? Bruises? Disability Rights Files Suit Against Wake County Schools.The complaint alleged that children with autism were improperly restrained in class, including a child in handcuffs and a child returning home from school with bruises.

The Cost of Waiting from TASH (The Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps). This Report chronicles the implications of inaction from Congress, as children across the country continue to be subjected to abusive practices that result in serious emotional trauma, physical pain and injury, and even death.

Federal Standards

Summary of Seclusion and Restraint Statutes, Regulations, Policies and Guidance, by State and Territory. U.S. DOE posts restraint and seclusion policies in a Summary Report (February 2010).

Federal Standards For Use of Restraint And Seclusion by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health

Position Papers on Restraints

How Safe Is The Schoolhouse? An Analysis of State Seclusion and Restraint Laws and Policies. This Report by Jessica Butler compares state approaches to seclusion and restraint, reviews state policies, and contains a summary of state restraint and seclusion laws.

Unsafe in the Schoolhouse: Abuse of Children with Disabilities by Jessica Butler. In March-May 2009, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) conducted a survey that identified 185 cases in which children were subjected to aversive interventions. Reports were received of children subject to prone restraints; injured by larger adults who restrained them; tied, taped and trapped in chairs and equipment; forced into locked seclusion rooms; made to endure pain, humiliation and deprived of basic necessities, and subjected to a variety of other abusive techniques.

School is Not Supposed to Hurt: US DOE Must Do More to Protect School Children from Restraint and Seclusion. This 2012 report is the third in a series of reports on restraint and seclusion by the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN). NDRN argues that ED should issue strong national guidance to state education agencies and local school districts about when the use of restraint and seclusion might violate anti-discrimination and education laws, similar to the guidance that the Office of Civil Rights has already issued on bullying and harassment.

School is Not Supposed to Hurt: Update on Progress in 2009 to Prevent and Reduce Restraint and Seclusion in Schools. This report is a follow-up released by The National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) to its January 2009 report School is not Supposed to Hurt. The report, a shocking investigation chronicling the abusive use of seclusion and restraint on schoolchildren and a lack of state and federal regulation is updated with progress made in 2009.(February 2010).

Out of Darkness...Into the Light: Seclusion and Restraint of Wisconsin Children. The report from Disability Rights Wisconsin exposes the tragedy of secluding and restraining Wisconsin children in schools and treatment settings throughout the state. It describes the ways in which Wisconsin children have been both emotionally and physically injured by such practices, including one child who died in restraints. It further describes actions taken by many other states to reduce the use of seclusion and restraint of children, and calls for legislative and administrative agency action to protect Wisconsin children from these dangerous practices. (April 2009) Executive Summary l Full Report

Improving the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: Making Schools Work for All of America's Children (National Council on Disabilities, 1995) - The current system has the potential to allow parents to request and receive program methods that are unproven, experimental in nature, or dangerous or harmful to the physical or psychological health of their child. While it is possible to understand the desperation of these parents, to share their exasperation with ineffective programs and treatments, and to sympathize with them in their frustration to locate appropriate programs, there are limits to what society can permit in the name of treatment.

Restraint and Seclusion in Treatment Foster Care - Bibliography from the Child Welfare Information Gateway.

Prevention and Management of Aggressive Behavior in Psychiatric Institutions with Reference to Seclusion and Restraints published by the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry - "Seclusion and restraint are medical interventions, which are utilized during the psychiatric treatment of children and adolescents in hospital-based settings or other specialized clinical treatment programs."

Autism National Committee Position on Restraints - "Condemns the widespread and excessive use of mechanical and physical restraints in restricting the civil and human rights of people with disabilities ... the use of restraints is a failure in treatment."

National Mental Health Association Position Statement - " a matter of fundamental policy, Mental Health America urges abolition of the use of seclusion and restraints to control symptoms of mental illnesses, and prohibition of the use of sedatives and other medications as chemical restraints."

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Physical & Sexual Abuse

Physical Abuse in Schools

Call to Action: New York Regs Allow Schools to Use "Aversive Interventions" on Children, Including Electric Shock - In June, 2006, New York approved "emergency regulations" that permit public schools to use aversive behavioral interventions and time-out rooms on children with disabilities. These regulations were approved without public meetings, testimony of comment. Call to Action includes a detailed plan of action to defeat these regulations.

Action Alert: Abu Ghraib on the Hudson (html)

Sexual Abuse in Schools

Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature prepared for the U. S. Department of Education Carol Schakeshaft (2004) estimages that nearly 1 in 10 students (9.8%) experienced unacceptable sexual behavior by a school employee during their school years. The report describes existing research and literature, prevalence, offender characteristics, targets, patterns, effects, consequences, and prevention of educator sexual misconduct.(156 pages, pdf)

Kalie McArthur v. Academy School District 20
Parents sue district after daughter sexually assaulted by "peer tutor" - district expert claims assault was "pleasurable."

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Time Out and Seclusion

Using Federal Stimulus $$$ to Construct Seclusion Areas. A Wisconsin school district has decided to use federal stimulus dollars to construct “seclusion areas” in its schools.  The decision is opposed by those working to end such practices for students with disabilities.

Teacher Fired, Isolation Room Closed, Lawsuit Pending.The following video (taken from a school surveillance tape) is a shocking report of videotaped abuse of a 14 year old boy who has autism (2009).

New York Schools Regs Allow Schools to Use "Aversive Interventions" on Children - Including Electric Shock - In June, the New York Board of Regents approved "emergency regulations" that permit public schools to use aversive behavioral interventions and time-out rooms as consequences for behavior of children with disabilities. These regulations went into effect on June 23, 2006. Among these "emergency regulations" is "the placement of a child unsupervised or unobserved in a room from which the student cannot exit without assistance."

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Positive Behavior Support (PBS)

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that a child's Individualized Education Planning (IEP) Team consider to the child's behavior if it interferes with his or her education or the education of others. IDEA is explicit in what it requires the IEP team to do when a child with a disability has behavior problems:

  • If a child's behavior impairs the child's learning or that of others, the IEP team shall consider the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports (20 U.S.C. Section 1414(d)(3)(B)(i)) (Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Edition, page 103);
  • If school personnel decide to change the child's placement because of a violation of a code of student conduct, the school district, parent, and relevant members of the IEP team shall review all relevant information including the IEP, to determine if the conduct was caused by or had a relationship to the child's disability (20 U.S.C. Section 1415(k)(1)(E) (Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Edition, page 119);
  • If the team determines that the child's conduct was a manifestation of the disability, the IEP shall conduct a functional behavioral assessment, and implement a behavior intervention plan (20 U.S.C. 1415(k)(i)(F);(Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Edition, page 120);
  • If a behavior intervention plan already exists, the team must review and modify it to address the child's behavior (20 U.S.C. 1415(k)(i)(F); ( Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Edition, page 120);

Alliance to Prevent Restraint, Aversive Interventions and Seclusion (APRAIS) The key to reducing the use of aversives, restraints, and seclusion is to ensure that individuals who exhibit challenging behaviors have access to comprehensive and individualized positive behavior support.

Coalition for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. Advocating for the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports in place of aversive measures such as restraint, seclusion and other abusive practices. Includes links to state specific information.

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Caselaw: Abuse, Neglect, Restraints, Seclusion in Public Schools

Connecticut Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities v. Hartford Bd of Educ, Hartford Public Schools and Robert Henry, Sup. of Schools (2nd Cir 2006)

After media reports of children being neglected and abused at the Hartford Transitional Academy, a "therapeutic educational program" for emotionally disturbed children, the Connecticut Office of Protection & Advocacy launched an investigation into these allegations. Administrators at Hartford Public Schools stonewalled, refused to provide the agency with any information about the children or contact information for their parents. School officials refused to allow the P & A staff to interview students at the "Academy."

Why? Hartford Public Schools claimed the Individuals with Disabiliities Act and FERPA barred them from releasing infomation about the students who may have been neglected and/or abused by them. When this argument failed in court, school officials claimed the P & A was only authorized to investigate abuse at residential programs. The U. S. Court of Appeals requested that the U. S. Dept of Education and Health and Human Services file amicus briefs with their interpretations. The joint amicus brief filed with the Court "rejects defendents arguments." The Court ruled that the P & A have a statutory responsibility to investigate suspected cases of abuse and neglect of individuals with disabilities or mental illness. The Court found probable cause that "multiple individuals have been subjected to abuse or neglect" at Hartford Transitional Academy. (September 15, 2006)

GreatSchools provided statistics for the Hartford Transition Academy and Hartford Public Schools. Of the 269 students enrolled at Hartford Transition Academy, 0 percent were proficient in reading, writing and math on the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005. (It appears that Hartford Public Schools did not provide any test data for this school).

Questions: According to the Connecticut Dept of Education, "The goal is for all students to score at or above the state standard." The test data for Hartford Public Schools shows that the district is far from reaching this goal. What steps has the Connecticut Department of Education taken to bring this school into compliance?

How is your child's school and school district performing? Visit GreatSchools for detailed information about schools and school districts.

Disability Rights Wisconsin, Inc., v. v. Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction & Elizabeth Burmaster, Superintendent of Public Instruction (7th Cir. 2006)

This case involved several children who were dragged into seclusion / time out rooms at Lincoln Elementary School. The media learned about these incidents and did a news story about the abused children. When Disability Rights of Wisconsin tried to investigate, the Department of Public Instruction refused to provide any information about the identity of the children involved or their parents, claiming that this "confidential information," pursuant to the Family Educational Privacy Act.

The court provided a detailed description of one seclusion room that was "approximately 5 feet by 9 feet in size. Dark grey carpeting covered the floor and the walls. Fluorescent ceiling lighting illuminated the room. The door to the room had a lock and no interior door knob, which violated the fire code (and has since been remedied)."
The Court analyzed the laws that govern Protection and Advocacy agencies and ruled in favor of Disability Rights of Wisconsin. The decision includes a detailed description of the responsibilities of P & As to protect individuals with disabilities, limitations on confidentiality under the Family Educational Rights to Privacy Act, and other issues.

Covington v. Knox Co (TN)
- U. S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Decision in "time-out room" child abuse case; creates exceptions to exhaustion requirement in damages cases. In html

Shawn Witte v. Clark County (NV) School Board, et. al. - U. S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. School brutality case; damages sought under Section 504 and the ADA on behalf of child with disability. Court issued pro-child decision; discussed exhaustion of remedies under the IDEA and appropriate damages for physical abuse and injury. Decision in pdf

W.B. v. Matula, U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In case where child was bullied by teacher and other students, court held that damages are available under Section 504, IDEA, and Section 1983 since the district refused to evaluate, classify and provide appropriate services to the disabled child; includes discussion of exhaustion, qualified immunity, and due process.

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Protection & Advocacy Services

The National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) - nonprofit membership organization for the federally mandated Protection and Advocacy (P&A) Systems and Client Assistance Programs (CAP) for individuals with disabilities. Collectively, the P&A/CAP network is the largest provider of legally based advocacy services to people with disabilities in the United States.

National Association for Rights Protection and Advocacy - NARPA is dedicated to promoting those policies and pursuing those strategies that represent the preferred options of people who have been labeled mentally disabled. NARPA is committed to advocating the abolishing of all forced treatment laws. NARPA believes the recipients of mental health services are capable of and entitled to make their own choices, and they are, above all, equal citizens under the law. NARPA's fundamental mission is to help empower people who have been labeled mentally disabled so that they may learn to independently exercise their rights.

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Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports

National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (NCPMI) for Supporting Social Emotional Competence in Infants and Young Children

Council for Exceptional Children

Center for Parent Information and Resources - School Discipline Resource Collection

IDEA Partnerships

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Positive Behavior Support: Evolution of an Applied Science
Carr, E. G., Dunlap, G., Horner, R. H., Koegel, R. L., Turnbull, A., Sailor, W., Anderson, J., Albin, R., Koegel, L. K., & Fox, L. (2002). Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 4(1), 4-16. Copyright (2002) by PRO-ED, Inc. Adapted with permission. You may download this article to make single a copy for your own use.

Facilitator's Guide, Positive Behavioral Support
This guide is made available through the Bureau of Instructional Support and Community Service, Florida Department of Education, and was developed by the staff of the Positive Behavior Support (PBS) Project at the University of South Florida. This guide is designed to build capacity of school districts in positive assessment based approaches to support students with significant behavioral challenges.

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Last revised: 01/10/20

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