Every day in schools across the United States, students are being subjected to barbaric and potentially deadly treatment in the form of seclusion and restraint.
According to leading education researchers and child trauma experts, as well as the Government Accountability Office, the use of these practices — which include forcibly pinning students to the ground, strapping them to chairs or locking them in closets — is dangerous and traumatic for everyone involved, including teachers, other school personnel and students. Their use has been linked to physical and emotional harm and even death. It is a practice that amounts to institutionalized child abuse, and it has no place in our schools.
That is why the American Association of School Administrators’ recent endorsement of the use of seclusion and restraint in our schools is so disheartening. In promoting the use of these harmful practices, the organization is recommending a policy that could make our schools significantly more dangerous for students and educators alike.
Sadly, seclusion and restraint is primarily inflicted on young children with disabilities. Seventy percent of children who suffer this treatment have significant disabilities. Most are between the ages of 6 and 10.
Think about it: The most vulnerable of our children, the ones we should be nurturing and protecting, are the most likely to endure this violent, degrading and sometimes deadly practice. Imagine the lifelong damage young children can suffer when they are handled this way by teachers or others who have been entrusted with their care.
Experience and research show that seclusion and restraint are actually counterproductive and increase the likelihood of violence in classrooms. Across the United States, school districts that have renounced their use experience significantly less problematic behavior from students. Tellingly, they also report substantial reductions in workers compensation claims by teachers and staff as a result of altercations with students.
Ultimately, the AASA’s position on seclusion and restraint is really a reflection of the group’s disregard for children with disabilities.
The implication is that these vulnerable children are a burden to schools, rather than an equally important part of the student population. The underlying attitude is that these children are disrupting their efforts to educate the “good” students and that something must be done to keep disruptions to a minimum. What better way to accomplish this than by locking the disruptive child in a closet for the day?
Fortunately, most of the educators I’ve met and come to know, both as a parent and as an elected official, don’t share this attitude. They recognize that each child is precious and presents unique challenges and opportunities, and they are committed to educating everyone. The question is: How can we provide educators the support and guidance they need to educate every child in the classroom, even those who present behavioral challenges?
For school administrators, the answer can be found in providing teachers with evidence-based behavior management training to give them the skills they need to avoid dangerous situations and neutralize threatening behavior. Rather than encouraging potentially dangerous responses to challenging behaviors, administrators should provide teachers the necessary tools to avoid them.
Of course, the responsibility doesn’t lie solely with school administrators, or teachers for that matter. Parents of children with behavioral issues must be willing to work closely with school staff to help them better understand their children and the types of situations and stimuli that can lead to outbursts. The better teachers know the student, the more likely they’ll be able to create a safe and supportive environment.
Finally, policymakers and legislators can play an important role by creating sensible and realistic standards and regulations to assure that every school is safe for students and teachers alike. Some states are already doing a good job of dealing with this issue and can offer valuable lessons to officials and lawmakers in other states.
Ideally, legislators should be working with experienced behaviorists to create uniform guidelines that could be adopted by each state.
Everyone wants safe schools. However, any approach that legitimizes seclusion and restraint undermines safety while marginalizing our society’s most vulnerable children. We can — and must — do better for our children.
Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) is a member of the Energy and Commerce, House Administration and Ethics committees.