- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The use of seclusion and physical restraint in schools to discipline children has resulted in hundreds of possible abuse cases during the past two decades, including some ending in death, according to a government report released Tuesday.

The abusive practices were used disproportionately on children with disabilities, says the report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“This behavior, in some instances, looks like torture. The current situation is unacceptable and cannot continue,” said House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, who requested the report and held a committee hearing Tuesday to highlight the findings.

“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,” the California Democrat said.

Seclusion, as the term is used in the report, refers to acts of involuntarily confinement of a student in isolation. Restraint is used to restrict a person’s freedom of movement, which can become fatal when it blocks air to the lungs. In some of the cases cited in the report, restraints were used that involved ropes, duct tape and chairs with straps or bungee cords.

The agency said it could not determine whether the abuse was widespread.

Texas parent Toni Price said her 7-year-old son, Cedric, died in 2002 after a teacher restrained the boy for trying to leave the classroom.

“Cedric struggled as he was being held in his chair, so the teacher put him in a facedown, or in a prone restraint, and sat on him,” Ms. Price of Killeen said at the hearing. “He struggled and said repeatedly: ‘I can’t breathe.’ Shortly after that, he stopped speaking and he stopped struggling.”

Cedric’s death was ruled a homicide, but the teacher was able to continue to teach students with disabilities after moving to Virginia. The Virginia Department of Education later placed the teacher on leave and investigated the abuse case only after being informed of the teacher’s history by the GAO.

In half of the cases in the report, teachers or school staff involved with the harsh treatment of students continued to teach, either in the same school system or a new one.

More often than not, according to the report, teachers and staff who used seclusion and restraint in abusive ways had not been properly trained. The practices were often used as a routine disciplinary tactic, rather than in response to an emergency, the report said.

GAO found other instances of 5-year-olds being tied to chairs with bungee cords and a 13-year-old who hanged himself after being held in seclusion for a lengthy amount of time.

GAO reviewed 10 such cases in which there was a criminal conviction or civil liability. Parents did not give consent, and educators were not instructed or trained to use such techniques.

Half of the teachers involved in the selected cases are still employed as educators.

In the cases described by the GAO, the children were given this treatment because they were “uncooperative,” got out of their seat when they weren’t allowed or “slouched” in their chairs. The cases did not involve physically aggressive children.

“We found that children are subjected to restraint or seclusion at higher rates than adults and are at greater risk of injury. Even if no physical injury is sustained, we also testified that individuals can be severely traumatized during restraint,” GAO wrote in its report.

There are no federal laws restricting the use of seclusion or restraints in public or private schools and a spectrum of laws at the state level.

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