The School Went Too Far This Time
Misbehavior at school — violent outbursts, in particular — requires swift, forceful action. But if a teacher’s or administrator’s discipline involves restraint or seclusion, it has crossed a line into abusive behavior. How to stand up for your child’s rights and her safety at school.
Your eight-year-old daughter with ADHD comes home from school and is very upset. It turns out that she shouted out in class — again — and her teacher covered her mouth with tape and had her sit on the hallway floor until dismissal time. You are furious.
Or perhaps your son tells you about his friend Sam, who pushed over his desk and punched a classmate. The teacher grabbed him, held him down, and then locked him in the closet. You know that Sam has behavior problems, but the closet in that classroom is tiny and has little ventilation.
Punishing Kids in the Classroom
How prevalent are such actions in schools? Many students who are subjected to this kind of physical punishment, referred to as “restraint and seclusion,” have some kind of disability, including ADHD. When the U.S. Department of Education looked at students with IEPs (who make up about 12 percent of all students), they found that students with IEPs comprised 58 percent of those placed in seclusion or involuntary confinement, 75 percent of those physically restrained at school, and 25 percent of those who faced police intervention or arrest.
What should parents do when they hear about children being subject to restraint or seclusion? What are schools allowed to do, and how can parents make sure that their children — and all children — are safe from inappropriate and sometimes dangerous methods of discipline? And, finally, what should schools do to deal with students who are a danger to themselves or others?
The Legal Landscape
There is no federal law dealing with restraining, secluding, or punishing a child in school. There are many state laws limiting what schools can do to discipline students, with and without disabilities, which are summarized on the Department of Education website www.ed.gov; search “restraint and seclusion”), but this list changes all the time. And even when states have laws designed to limit restraint and seclusion, enforcement of these laws varies.
Schools have a legitimate need to maintain a safe environment and to protect students and staff from dangerous behaviors students direct against themselves or others. But there are ways to do this that do not involve potentially dangerous restraints or placing children in confined places that may be unsafe, unsupervised, and without access to bathroom facilities.
IDEA specifically requires that if a student’s behavior interferes with his education, the school must conduct a behavioral assessment and consider using positive behavioral supports to address these issues. In addition, if the student’s conduct results in a suspension for more than 10 days, an IEP meeting must be held to review the role of the student’s disability in the behavior, and to determine whether a change in the IEP is warranted. It is important to keep in mind that secluding a student, by removing him to a “time out” room or some other place, is considered a “change in placement” under IDEA, which requires an immediate IEP meeting to consider behavior challenges and solutions.
For students with significant behavior problems, schools sometimes want an IEP to include provisions for restraint or seclusion. Parents should insist that schools consider these only in situations that pose serious danger, and, instead, focus on positive supports and behavior plans. Furthermore, IDEA requires that IEP interventions be based on peer-reviewed research, and there is a lack of sound research supporting the benefits of restraint or seclusion.
Students who have a 504 Plan may have grounds for legal action against their school district if they can show that seclusion or restraint was a form of discrimination against them because of a disability.
Game Plan for Parents
What can parents do to prevent students from being secluded or restrained?
1. Become familiar with the laws in your state and your district’s policies. If they are not sufficient, or are not being followed, push to expand or apply them.
2. Urge your child’s school to train their staff in dealing with difficult behaviors that don’t involve restraining or secluding children.
3. If your child has behavior problems, address these proactively with school personnel or the IEP team. If a behavioral assessment determines that some form of restraint or seclusion may be absolutely necessary for your child’s safety, be sure you know how and where this will be done, who will be implementing these practices, and that provisions are made to inform you each and every time these are used.