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Abusive and Deadly Uses of Seclusion and Restraint

IDEA Laws - Disabilities Education Act Both the House and Senate continue to consider legislation on the abusive and deadly use of seclusion and restraint. Currently, they are holding hearings on the Keeping All Students Safe Act, a bill that addresses the practice of restraint and seclusion. In 2009, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a Report on Seclusions and Restraints: Selected Cases of Death and Abuse at Public and Private Schools and Treatment Centers. It described some of the most extreme cases, including: young children being tied down, having their mouths taped shut, being locked in small spaces for extended periods of time, and being crushed by a teacher as a way to prevent disruptive behavior. The GAO reported that in one academic year in California and Texas, 33,000 cases of abuse and restraint were reported, 20 of these resulting in death.  The issue of seclusion and restraint in schools is widespread across the nation, yet unknown to many parents. It is critical for parents of children with learning disabilities to be aware of this alarming practice, because the cases that are most often seen involve children with disabilities.

Federal Laws and Disciplinary Issues

There are currently no federal laws that specifically prohibit the practice of seclusion and restraint in schools. A few states have laws addressing this practice, but rarely are the accompanying regulations and guidelines being followed. One federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), does provide some guidelines regarding serious behavior or disciplinary issues for students with disabilities. The IDEA mandates that special education students all have an Individualized Education Program (IEP), developed by parents and school personnel. Parents should make sure that their child’s IEP includes specific instructions related to the use of strategies and interventions if behavior and/or disciplinary issues arise. It’s important to know that although the IDEA requires that eligible students be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE), the concept of LRE doesn’t specifically exclude the practice of seclusion or restraint.

One of the main problems is that the “appropriate” uses of seclusion and restraint are not defined by any of the federal regulations or guidelines that are currently in place. Some researchers and education professionals believe that mild forms of seclusion and restraint are necessary in what they call “emergency situations.” These are situations when a child is endangering himself, students, or staff. More research is needed so that informed legislation can be created to protect students by either banning all, or select forms of seclusions and restraint.

At this time there are no federal laws to guide states in the investigation and prosecution of abuse of students, including students with disabilities. Some states have their own official policies for abuse and restraint and some have policies for seclusion. Parents have few options when these problems arise: School administrators and teachers are reportedly not held accountable, Child Protective Services (CPS) do not have the jurisdiction, and the police, who are willing to help, do not have the resources or expertise to fully investigate these cases.

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