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Abuse in Schools Turns Deadly

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Isolation rooms and chairs with restraining straps are the new tactics for keeping school kids in line.

A new type of teacher-child abuse is surfacing in the classroom--and it's not sexual. More and more educators are resorting to physical violence to discipline unruly kids--ending with some children even dying. Could this happen in your child's school?
Tim Miller, 12, told his father he didn't want to go to school because his teachers were trying to kill him.

Tim, who has Asperger's Syndrome, was often rowdy in class--on several occasions, his teachers held him on the floor for 20 minutes to calm him down. Tim's parents sued the school district for costs of therapy for their son as a result of the incidents, but the school insisted their teachers acted appropriately.

One teacher wrote: "Tim was screaming down the hall. He ran past me and began to double his fist to punch the locker. At this point, I scooped my arm underneath his and directed him into my room."

The teacher and another "laid him onto the mat, where he was held approximately 20 minutes," the report stated.

This is a growing problem as more parents of children with psychiatric problems are getting their kids into mainstream schools. Just last year, the public school system granted entrance to 600,000 more special education students than it did a decade ago, many in regular classrooms. And researchers say teachers just aren't trained to handle such severe behavior issues. As a result, educators are using dangerous discipline techniques like isolation rooms and restraining kids in chairs with straps.

Just consider a case in April where a 9-year-old Montreal student with autism suffocated to death after a special education teacher wrapped him in a weighted blanket to calm him down. Two Michigan autistic kids also died in school from similar forms of restraint.

One Dallas-based 11-year-old with ADD was picked up by his mom at a police station after being taken from the school in handcuffs for cursing at a teacher.  

"I didn't hear about it for hours and had to go get him at jail," his mother said. "He was hysterical, obviously, and he's had his ups and downs since then. It's hard to know what a thing like that does to a child that age."

One major problem is that states and school districts get to decide when to use physical restraints and isolation, and the definition of such is pretty broad. However, some states like Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and Michigan are instituting stricter policies on the use of isolation and restraints. While New York, California, and Iowa are in talks to tighten their rules.

Experts say the use of force in schools is increasing at a rapid pace--at least one or two cases a week-with hypocrisy surrounding the situation. "It's an awful combination, because many parents expect restraints to be used -- as long as it's not their kid," said Reece L. Peterson, a professor of special education at the University of Nebraska.

Teachers feel overburdened by other duties and caring for one child with a disability can consume his or her attention and throw off the entire class (usually 35 children). Currently, federal law states teachers must develop a plan for every disabled student (tricks to ease a child's temper, or solutions for time-out), but if the child becomes violent, it's common for educators to resort to aggressive solutions.  

Investigators studied cases of school abuse in California and found during the 2005-2006 school year, an 8-year-old with attention deficit disorder and mental retardation was repeatedly locked in a "seclusion room" alone at least 31 times in a single year. His parents only heard about the incident from another parent, who saw the boy trying to escape.

In another school, a teacher held a 12-year-old with ADD "face down on the floor, straddling him at his hips, and holding his hands behind his back," according to the investigation.

Parents are furious, but also reluctant to report the school for fear of retaliation. As for the children, they often don't understated what is going on or why they are being punished--after all, many lack communication skills, even to tell their parents why they return from school with bruises. And the ramifications of the public humiliation and psychological abuse are usually unknown until later.

But with parents hesitant to report the school and teachers feeling powerless, a certain dichotomy presents itself. The parents of an 11-year-old who died while being held down called for a ban on restraints. But in another case, the parents sued the school for not restraining their son who ran away from teachers and ultimately drowned.

Some companies offer programs to teach management techniques to school staff, but until states designate exactly what techniques are acceptable, the use of force on children in schools will continue.

Do you think teachers should discipline with physical restraint, or should parents of special needs children send their kids to special education schools?

next: Stars: NOT Just Like Us
45 comments so far | Post a comment now
Stephanie July 15, 2008, 7:57 PM

Having worked with special needs kids in Early Intervention i know the problem these teachers face, It is a terrible disruption! However, the work I did as one to one. The child was in the mainstream class and I was his/ her shadow or helper throughout the day. These teachers are not getting the training or the luxury of the one to one. Laws require the “least restrictive environment” therefore these kids are being put in the mainstream. What are they supposed to do if the districts are not meeting the needs of these kids? It is just not fair to anyone!

Anonymous July 15, 2008, 10:00 PM

I am a teacher… I had a student who was out of control decide to pick up a pair of scissors and come at me. NO ADMINISTRATOR WOULD COME when I called. This is frequent in my school. Often there is NO administrator on campus. So please, quit blaming the teachers and start looking to their administrators. What do you expect when a child is OUT OF CONTROL and the teacher is faced with protecting the other children?? Think about it.. if some kid went nuts in your child’s class and no administrator would come to remove that child would you want the teacher just to sit back and let that kid continue to go nuts?

Flamom July 15, 2008, 10:40 PM

I am a parent who had a child in public school but pulled him out because I thought he was having a breakdown. A year later I found out that he was being restrained almost daily. I guess my poor baby who use to be a happy child had to sit back while out of control school staff went nuts and prone restrained him over and over and NEVER CALLED ME OR SENT ME ANYTHING IN WRITING ONE TIME TO TELL ME WHAT THEY WERE DOING TO MY SON. He was only 11 years old at the time and his communication was very poor. He is now 16 and has NEVER been the same since.

Anna July 15, 2008, 11:19 PM

So because your frustrated with Administration you take it out on our kids? Mainstream teachers cant be bothered with children with disabilities. I believe they say “I didnt sign up to be an ESE teacher so I shouldnt have to deal with this”. My son had the highest conduct grades you could get. He was in 2nd grade & was brutalized because his teacher didnt believe he had a neurological disorder.
Stop feeling sorry for yourself, learn some compassion or do all children a favor & go find another profession.

What do we teach little ones in class “Please keep your hands to yourself”. That rule works both ways!
Violence begets violence.

susan July 16, 2008, 7:28 AM

I don’t think it’s so much that teachers “can’t be bothered with children with disabilities” but more that they lack the training and, unfortunately, the time to do so effectively. With NCLB and inclusion the norm right now, classroom teachers face enormous pressure to get through their teaching plan —no matter what. This hurts not only the special needs students, but ALL students.
It’s up to each family to be sure THEY know the policies of their school system regarding restraint and all procedures for special needs students; the schools won’t tell you up front — parents need to ask, monitor, document and follow up and be the squeaky wheel when needed.
Actually, that applies to all students.

Flamom July 16, 2008, 9:24 AM

I live in Florida. We have no laws and most schools have no policies. The ones that do don’t follow them. No tracking, no reporting and no parent notification. If you do find out your child is being restrained or put in locked seclusion it’s by someone else in the school or another parent. This is NOT something the school districts want out in the open. I have been working on this issue in Florida for 3 years and it’s very difficult to get the school districts or the DOE to open up about this. I have worked with the DOE and the school district on this issue in several meetings. I did find out in my county they are prone restraining children in Pre-K. That’s 3 & 4 year old children with Autism and emotional disabilities. And as far as parents need to ask, monitor, document and follow up and be the squeaky wheel when needed. We are all doing this and more by talking before school boards filing complaints with DOE, DCF, OCR and various other groups and none of them have helped us. NOT ONE!

Kristen F July 16, 2008, 9:41 AM

I think that if a child with special needs is in a mainstream classroom, he/she should have a special needs helper/shadow person there with them in case the child does have an “episode” of some sort and needs someone with the knowledge on how to safely and effectively calm them down as quickly as possible. Children with constant interruptions shouldn’t be in a mainstream class in my opinion b/c then the other children aren’t getting the proper education they deserve either. In a lot of cases of inclusion that I’ve witnessed, the child really needed to be in a special needs classrom, not a mainstream one.

Lee July 16, 2008, 2:17 PM

I agree with the PP, not all children with special needs should be mainstreamed. The fact is that some students with special needs, need much more then a regular school room can offer. I understand not wanting your child to be left out, but lets consider the other children. They have a right to an education too. When a teacher has to spend the majority of time with one or two chidren, the others miss out.

As for the issue of holding kids down or containing them, I don’t think it is appropiate. If I was a teacher in that type of classroom I would talk to the parents. Let them help in divising a plan of action should something happen. That way everyone is on the same page.

Flamom July 16, 2008, 2:33 PM

You parents that do not want the kids in your classroom should walk in our shoes for one week and deal with the school districts like we do. You wouldn’t believe some of the programs they want to put our children in. I was offered 2 schools for my son. Both were like little mini institutions. One of the schools was so rundown and dirty I would never put my child in something like that and neither would you. So the next time you think you know what is best for someone else child do your homework and see what some of the other options are for these children with special needs. We have very few school options available for our children.

dreamer July 16, 2008, 7:07 PM

I am a classroom teacher and a parent. I have seen both sides of this issue. Many schools in my area have “Full Inclusion” That means all SpEd kids in regular class. The districts can’t or won’t pay for the aides that are needed.

One SpEd kid took the leg of a table and went after my daughter. The boy said it was “because my daughter had too many answers.” Thankfully the teacher was able to control the boy without force. The School Dist.told me that “least restrictive Environment” means Mainstreaming. Also there is a limit on the number of days a SpEd student can be suspended.

We need both mainstreaming for students who can handle it and self contained classrooms for those who can’t

susan July 17, 2008, 8:27 AM

To flamom, go public. Sounds like you’ve exhausted all of the official agencies with no response so take your story (and your documentation) to the local tv stations and newspapers. Keep at it.

xyr July 17, 2008, 11:22 AM

To the person that said “go public,” read the article again: “Parents are furious, but also reluctant to report the school for fear of retaliation.” Parents have had, instead of support by an educational system that is supposed to provide a free and appropriate education for all: retaliation against their children, CPS coming to their houses and trying to accuse them of abuse, children taken away from them in some instances, many cases where the parents, in desperation, take the child out of school only to have truant officers show up at their door and demand that the child return to school. Parents who don’t have special needs children assume that it’s easy to be open about it. It is not.

susan July 17, 2008, 5:47 PM

I did read the article…if flamom has tried to get results within the system I assume they already are unhappy with her. When you have exhausted all reasonable means, you need to try whatever options may work. The schools hope people will be scared and stop. If you truly have valid documentation, present it in a calm and non-confrontational manner. Good luck

Lauren July 17, 2008, 11:03 PM

I am a 4th grade teacher in an “urban” public school. The last school year I had 30 students in my classroom and 11 of my students were labeled as ADD, ADHD, EH, LD, and gifted. Another five students were being tested for special needs. Granted, I love teaching, I love working with children, but this was impossible. The amount of disruptions that happened on a daily basis made teaching impossible. I agree that students with special needs really need the one on one instruction, but that doesn’t happen. Public funds don’t cover the amount of teachers needed in one mainstreamed classroom. Something needs to be done about this, although I am not sure how. What is worse, is there are students who are missing out on their education and being passed onto the next grade level without the necessary skills. Very little teaching gets done in these classrooms, personally, I felt more like a police officer than a teacher. I was constantly having to stop to deal with a behavior issue, not just talking, but fighting, cussing, etc. This is a tough issue all around.

Stokes July 17, 2008, 11:21 PM

I work at a special ed private school for kids with emotional, behavioral and learning disabilities. I am assigned as a member of the ‘safe’ team.

I am called daily to situations where the students are explosive. I am certified in several types of deescalation as well as two types of restraint.

The only reason we would ever put our hands on a child is if they are in danger of 1)hurting themselves 2)hurting others 3)destroying valuable property. I do not like putting my hands on students (some as young as 1st graders). I will go to extreme measures to prevent it, such as getting them away from the class/student/teacher that is causing the problem.

When all else fails and we have restrain the child, we have very strict procedure that is followed. We have to be certified in the technique used, a certified technique instructor must be present, a school nurse is there, and a clinician is there. If it goes more then 15 mins we call for an ambulance and the student is taken to the hospital crisis center.

All incidents require forms be filled out. The nurse or clinician calls the students parent/gaurdian and if there is any question about the event we call DYFS on ourselves.

I loathe to ‘put hands on’. It definitely leaves a sour taste. Some kids you can see the pain and anguish they are feeling. Sometimes there are home issues they are bringing in, sometimes it’s a mystery. Either way I believe we have a good system that will hopefully prevent any tragedy.

Derrick July 18, 2008, 10:07 AM

I am a children’s pastor in an area that ranges from very rural to high suburban. My mother is an elementary school teacher with 20+ years. I have seen the spectrum of childhood problems ranging from autism and ADD to downs syndrome and bi-polar disorder and epilepsy. I think the problem cannot be blamed entirely on teachers. I also think the problem cannot be blamed entirely on administrators. People often forget the involvement of the state and federal government in the education system. Teachers are unfortunately the face of education and usually take the most heat, sometimes this is appropriate, but sometimes it is unnecessary and wrong. I think the main issue here is that parents are not being notified of restrictive measures. If I child runs at you with scissors and is physically threatening, it is for the safety of the child, teacher, and other children that SOMETHING must be done. Teachers need to be trained to handle these kinds of situations and compensated for their superior training, parents MUST be communicated with to determine the best solution, administrators must help, and government policy makers must be held accountable. The problem is huge and this article points out just one of many similar problems. ALL parties involved must work toward a solution.

Lou July 18, 2008, 12:02 PM

The public schools are not designed to handle difficult or “special needs” children. My daughter was speech delayed and my son is borderline Aspergers and, quite frankly, I wouldn’t trust the schools with them. I don’t believe it would be fair to a public school teacher to have to take on more difficult students while handing 30 “normal” children. And, people wonder why the homeschool movement is growing in America? My husband and I have to sacrifice a lot in terms of money and couple time in order to homeschool our children, but they are OUR children and they are our responsibility, first and foremost. It isn’t the job of the government to parent for us. Sometimes, maybe parents need to step up to the plate and be responsible for their own children. And, yes, I know, in order to own two cars, live in a nice neighborhood and afford all those lovely gadgets, you have to work. We thought like that to until we decided to put our children first.

ec July 19, 2008, 12:13 AM

Really, the parents of special needs children should be taking some of the responsibility for parenting their children themselves. If the parents don’t want their children to be restrained, they need to take some responsibility for teaching their children how to behave properly in school. Children who are violent will need to be restrained; the safety of the other children in the class must come first. If the child is not capable of being a part of a safe learning environment, then that child should not be in a public school.

Stephanie  July 19, 2008, 11:31 AM

I am a teacher & have dealt with VIOLENT SPED children for the last 2 years. If your child cannot handle a mainstream classroom it is your responsibility as a parent to remove them from the environment. In the city I teach in the administration & I lack the power to place the child in a more restrictive environment—even though, on a daily base your child is VIOLENTLY attacking teachers and students, at the age of 10. I spent the entire school year in hell b/c of one child & the other 19 of my students suffered as well. I resorted to force (normally wrapping the boys arms around himself & pinning his back to my chest) almost daily to stop the child from hurting me or another student. The only person who ever had bruises was ME and the occasional classmate though—from the scissors & other items this child used as a weapon.

Susan July 19, 2008, 12:33 PM

WAKE UP! I am a Special Ed Instructional Aide at a Continuation High School. We do not service the more seriously disabled students but our population is at high risk and most of our kids have learning and behvior disorders or they wouldn’t be at our school. We have a counselor 1 day a week for over 180 kids. We are underfunded and underserved by out district. I don’t think we are unusual.

If you want to make sure your child is recieving all the services they are intitled to you can volunteer at their school. Drop in at unexpected times. Make classified staff members your friend. By creating a relationship with teachers and staff you are making sure that your child will be at the forefront of their attention. Finally, write to your Congressmen and Senators to FUND Special Ed. So your children can receive the services set out in their Special Education Service Plans.

The Federal and State Governments set up laws, rules and standards but then refuses to fund them appropriatly. Attend school board meetings and look at your district budget. A quick look will confirm that my comment about lack of funding is true.

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