Trigger warning: descriptions of abusive practices.
Annoyance warning: this post is really long–sorry about that . . .
In November 2018, Alex Campbell, 13 years old and autistic, travelled to Washington, D.C., where he spoke to congressional staffers and disability activists about being physically restrained and secluded in his elementary school. Alex is a seasoned advocate—he started talking to legislators in his home state of Virginia about these abusive practices at the ripe old age of ten, and the trip to Washington in 2018 was his second visit with federal legislators and staffers. He plans to be a civil rights lawyer when he grows up.
But back when he was seven years old, Alex attended a private elementary school for children with disabilities. He remembers being repeatedly dragged from his classroom to the school’s “crisis room,” a converted storage closet with black-painted walls and a tiny window. The teacher or administrator who took him there would shove a heavy desk against the door to prevent it from opening and then leave him alone, confused and terrified. “When I asked for help or asked if anyone was still there, nobody would answer,” Alex said. “I felt alone. I felt scared.” At the time, Virginia had no law requiring such schools to inform parents if their children were restrained or secluded, and the principal of Alex’s school threatened to confine him to the “crisis room” for the rest of the year if he told his parents about what was happening. However, his mother and father soon noticed that their son had unexplained bruises, and that he was becoming more and more anxious. Eventually, he broke down and told them what was happening to him at school.
Sadly, Alex Campbell’s history is far from unusual. Shortly after Alex spoke in Washington for the second time, another autistic thirteen-year-old, Max Benson, was held for a prolonged period in a dangerous “prone restraint” by staff members in the private school for children with disabilities he attended in California. Max later died in hospital from his injuries. The use of prone restraints in schools is against the law in California, but the school in question (which has since gone out of business) frequently used them anyway.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection reports that roughly 124,000 students were restrained or secluded across the country during the latest period for which data is currently available, the 2015-16 school year. But this is certainly an undercount, and perhaps by a large amount. Many school districts do not collect the relevant data, or they fail to deliver it to the Department of Education as required. Even when they do make a report, the information provided may not be accurate. For example, the internal records of Cedar Rapids Community School District in Iowa showed that there had been 1,400 restraint/seclusion incidents from 2012-14—but none of these was reported to the U.S. Department of Education. Iowa’s two senators launched an investigation into this underreporting. Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia likewise reported zero cases of restraint or seclusion during the 2015-16 school year. However, following an investigation by a journalist from American University, Fairfax County Schools reported 1,700 cases in 2017-18. In the CRDC survey, roughly 70% of all school districts nationwide reported zero cases of restraint and seclusion in 2015-16. If their reports were anything similar to those of Cedar Rapids or Fairfax County, then many, many cases of children being restrained and secluded have probably been kept hidden from the Department of Education’s view.
Children with disabilities (primarily children with autism and ADHD) are much more likely than those without disabilities to face physical restraint and seclusion (isolation), as well as other forms of discipline such as suspension and expulsion. According to the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection for the 2015-16 school year, while children with disabilities represented only 12% of students nationally, they represented 71% of those suffering restraint and 66% of those facing seclusion. Children of color are especially likely to face restraint, seclusion, and even arrest, for minor infractions of school discipline. After eleven-year-old African-American Kayleb Moon-Robinson, who is autistic, kicked a trash can during a meltdown in 2014, his Virginia school’s police officer filed charges of disorderly conduct against him in juvenile court. The punishment imposed by the school was that he was only allowed to leave the classroom after his classmates had done so. A few weeks later he broke this rule by leaving with the other kids. The school principal called the police officer, who grabbed Kayleb and tried to take him to the office; when the child resisted, he was slammed down, handcuffed, and taken instead to juvenile court, where he was charged not only with a second count of disorderly conduct (a misdemeanor) but also with “assault on a police officer” (a felony). A judge later found him guilty on all charges, and Kayleb faced doing time in a juvenile detention facility, but in the end the case was dropped and he transferred to a different school. The Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection does not break down data by both race and disability, but it does note that while African-Americans make up only 15% of the student population in the United States, they represent 27% of students restrained and 23% of those secluded.
Children have few legal protections against these practices. A 2012 resource document from the U.S. Department of Education explicitly states that restraint should not be used “except in situations where the child’s behavior poses imminent danger of serious physical harm to self or others.” Yet as of December 2016, only 22 states required that a child must pose an immediate physical threat to her/himself or others before restraint can be used. Elsewhere, restraints could be applied in cases where a child simply disobeys a teacher or acts out in non-threatening ways—as, for example, in the case of Thomas Brown of Denton, TX, who had a meltdown when he couldn’t get his shoes on and disrupted his class by swinging a computer mouse around. Eventually Thomas hid in his classroom cubby and refused to come out. At this point—when he actually posed no threat to anyone—his teacher and the school police officer dragged him out of the cubby, down the hall, and into the seclusion room, where he was handcuffed by the police officer. David Sims, of Conroe, Texas, who is also autistic, was not even having a meltdown when he was restrained. Instead, he was pretending to point an imaginary rifle at his art teacher. Nevertheless, he was handcuffed and taken to the local Juvenile Detention Center and held there for several hours.
As of December, 2016, only 24 states forbade the use of mechanical restraints such as handcuffs or leather straps. Many others continue to permit tying children to their seats with handcuffs, straps, duct tape, and other materials—a significant safety hazard in case of fire or other emergencies. Only 20 states forbade the use of sedatives (“chemical restraints”) to keep children under control. 17 states continued to allow the use of physical restraints that impede breathing (such as prone restraints). Only 23 states banned non-emergency seclusion of children with disabilities—elsewhere autistic children can still be locked in “crisis rooms,” storage closets or even bathrooms, sometimes for hours, for minor infractions. Only 32 states required that disabled children remain under observation while in seclusion, even though lack of observation could and can lead to the injury or even death of an overwhelmed child. As I write this, there is still no federal law regulating the use of restraint and seclusion in schools (this is what Alex Campbell has been lobbying for).
Restraint and seclusion are dangerous practices, both for the children subjected to them and for the staff implementing them. They expose children (and staff) to physical dangers: bruises, bloody noses, broken limbs, and—in the case of the children—even death. Still more disturbing, however, are the psychological effects. Remember that autistic children do not “choose” to have meltdowns. They are unable to control themselves during a meltdown, and are usually very frightened by what’s already happening to them—even before they are “punished” by an exasperated teacher or an untrained police officer. When that happens, they usually don’t understand why this is happening to them—they just know that they are being manhandled and locked up, and as a result they fight back even harder. Hannah Grieco reports that her son needed a year of “intensive therapy” to recover from the restraint he suffered at school. An autistic blogger remembers being secluded in school for hours at a time as “torture.” Many children who have been subjected to these practices suffer from PTSD. They may cry, scream or hide when they even see their school; they may beg their parents not to leave them there. Some have committed suicide during seclusion (when a school has failed in its duty to keep children under observation) or at home, after repeated incidents of seclusion.
Finally, it is the case that restraint and seclusion are completely ineffective as forms of discipline. As former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put it: “there continues to be no evidence that using restraint or seclusion is effective in reducing the occurrence of the problem behaviors that frequently precipitate the use of such techniques.” The techniques may teach children to fear their teachers, aides, or school resource officers, but they do not teach them anything at all about controlling their own behavior—which is out of their conscious control anyway. If anything, they tend to make autistic students more anxious, more stressed, and therefore more likely to suffer meltdowns, creating a vicious cycle of stress, classroom disturbance, punishment, escalating stress, further disturbance, and so on. In dealing with meltdowns, immediate resort to restraint and seclusion represent “worst” practice.
There are better ways.
 Hannah Rappleye and Liz Brown, “Thirteen-year-old Activist with Autism Wants to Close Seclusion Rooms at Schools,” NBC news report, November 23, 2018: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/education/thirteen-year-old-activist-autism-wants-close-seclusion-rooms-schools-n935356.
 Sawsan Morrar and Phillip Reese, “School Where Student with Autism Collapsed and Later Died Violated Restraint Rules, California Regulators Find,” The Sacramento Bee, December 8, 2018: https://www.sacbee.com/latest-news/article222799470.html.
 U.S. Department of Education,“2015-16 Civil Rights Data Collection: School Climate And Safety,” p. 12: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/school-climate-and-safety.pdf.
 Susan Ferriss, “Virginia Tops Nation in Sending Students to Cops, Courts: Where Does Your State Rank?” The Center for Public Integrity website, April 10, 2015; revised February 19, 2016: https://publicintegrity.org/education/virginia-tops-nation-in-sending-students-to-cops-courts-where-does-your-state-rank/ ; Susan Ferriss, “Virginia drops felony charges against sixth-grade boy with autism,” Reveal (published by the Center for Public Integrity), March 15, 2016: https://www.revealnews.org/article/virginia-drops-felony-charges-against-sixth-grade-boy-with-autism/.
 U.S. Department of Education, “2015-16 Civil Rights Data Collection: School Climate And Safety,” p. 11: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/school-climate-and-safety.pdf.
 National Disability Rights Network, “School Is Not Supposed to Hurt: Investigative Report on Abusive Restraint and Seclusion in Schools”: https://www.ndrn.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/SR-Report2009.pdf.
 U.S. Department of Education, “Restraint and Seclusion: Resource Document,” 2012: https://www2.ed.gov/policy/seclusion/restraint-and-seclusion-resource-document.html.
 “Denton ISD Faces Scrutiny After Officer Seen Handcuffing, Pinning Down Autistic Child,” report on the Dallas-Fort Worth CBS affiliate: https://dfw.cbslocal.com/2018/08/11/denton-isd-officer-seen-handcuffing-pinning-down-autistic-child/; see also Tom Steele, “Autistic child severely bruised after school officer handcuffed him, Denton parents say,” Dallas News, May 15, 2018: https://www.dallasnews.com/news/denton/2018/05/15/denton-parents-say-autistic-child-severe-bruises-after-school-officer-handcuffed.
 Matthew Martinez, “12-Year-Old with Autism Arrested for Using ‘Imaginary Rifle’ in Art Class, Family Says,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, May 10, 2018:
https://www.star-telegram.com/news/state/texas/article210879114.html ; Maria Perez, “Texas Student with Autism Arrested for Allegedly Firing ‘Imaginary Rifle’,” Newsweek, May 12, 2018: https://www.newsweek.com/imaginary-rifle-autism-texas-923316.
 These and the following numbers come from Jessica Butler, “How Safe is the Schoolhouse?: An Analysis of State Seclusion and Restraint Laws and Policies,” published in 2017 for the Autism National Committee: https://www.autcom.org/pdf/HowSafeSchoolhouse.pdf.
 See for example, the cases of a little girl in Indiana: https://www.apnews.com/6c1bf5670c23465c9d48ce4a77634131;
And a little boy in Florida who spent all day strapped to a toilet training chair with his pants down around his ankles: https://www.jacksonville.com/article/20090320/NEWS/801237594.
 Jenny Abamu, “Children Are Routinely Isolated in Some Fairfax County Schools. The District Didn’t Report It,” on WAMU radio, updated March 13, 2019:
 Erin Jordan, “Senators Ask Federal Probe of School Seclusion Reporting,” The [Cedar Rapids] Gazette, June 3, 2018: https://www.thegazette.com/subject/news/education/senators-ask-federal-probe-of-school-seclusion-reporting-20180603.
 Jenny Abamu, “U.S. Schools Underreport How Often Students Are Restrained Or Secluded, Watchdog Says,” All Things Considered, on National Public Radio, haveJune 18, 2019—based on a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office: https://www.npr.org/2019/06/18/731703500/u-s-schools-underreport-how-often-students-are-restrained-or-secluded-watchdog-s.
 Jenny Abamu, “U.S. Schools Underreport How Often Students Are Restrained Or Secluded, Watchdog Says,” on All Things Considered, on National Public Radio, June 18, 2019—based on a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office: https://www.npr.org/2019/06/18/731703500/u-s-schools-underreport-how-often-students-are-restrained-or-secluded-watchdog-s.
 Schools general deny that restraint and seclusion are used as punishment, but it is hard to see how aversive actions that do not teach children anything (see below) are anything else.
 Hannah Grieco, “Restraining Students with Disabilities is Harmful,” The Baltimore Sun, April 22, 2019:
 Anonymous, “Seclusion as Punishment,” in the “We Always Liked Picasso Anyway” blog, October 3, 2013:
 U.S. Department of Education, “Restraint and Seclusion: Resource Document,” 2012, p. iii: https://www2.ed.gov/policy/seclusion/restraints-and-seclusion-resources.pdf.