By this fall, US Department of Education has said that it will issue guidelines to school districts about the use of restraints, seclusion and other aversive procedures in US public schools. Let’s hope the US’s top special education official, Alexa Posny, sticks to her word. Right now, regulation of such procedures is left to local and state supervision, and the results have been disturbing and sometimes fatal (more about some cases here). Further, while the Education Department says that “only properly trained” staff and personnel should use restraint and seclusion, it does not specify the kind of training, who conducts the training, or what kinds of techniques are used.
Time and again, I’ve heard of parents saying their children with disabilities have been restrained with such procedures as the basket hold or the more ominous-sounding (because it involves just what it says it is) take down. These procedures must only be used in last-resort crisis management situations when it’s very clear that a child’s and the staff’s safety is under concern.
However, such procedures need to FIRST — I’m using all caps because this point is regularly overlooked — SPELLED OUT in a child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP). It must be understood by all parties that restraints and other aversive techniques are a LAST RESORT. Every time one is used, the child’s parents must be contact on the same day via a written report, and the child should be examined by a school nurse in the event that she or he has been injured as a result of the restraining procedure. If restraints and such practices are regularly used, a meeting must be held IMMEDIATELY to review the teaching procedures and the students’ behavior plan — because, if you’re regularly restraining a child, you’re not addressing the underlying reasons for the child becoming so upset. These reasons could simply be that a child is tired or frustrated, or have sensory overload and a headache, all of which a child with disabilities like my son (who was restrained so frequently in one New Jersey school district that he used to pretend to do a basket hold on himself), be unable to communicate too well, especially in times of stress.
Charlie can have some very difficult behaviors and part of his behavior plan does include the use of restraints but only in crisis situations. His teachers are trained by behavior consultants who work at the school and know him and who have specific experience in teaching and working with children and individuals with disabilities.
In California — my home state, where we hope Charlie might live someday as he has no siblings to take care of him when he’s an adult — Assemblyman Roger Hernández, Democrat of San Gabriel Valley, introduced a bill in February to ban the use of isolation rooms and impose strict limits on the use of restraints. As the New York Times reports, that bill was tabled, due to “stiff opposition from the California Department of Education, the California Teachers Association, the California School Boards Association and the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, which represents more than 130 foster homes and other agencies for troubled youth.”
More than half the incidents involving restraint and other aversive procedures reported in California in the 2009-10 school year have occurred in the Bay Area, and most of them in Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco Counties. The New York Times takes a look at some of the agencies school districts have hired to train staff (who, if they’re like the special education teacher population in New Jersey, are largely female). Since May 12, 2011, the San Francisco Unified School District has been contracting with a company called Handle With Care Behavior Management System to train staff (teachers, therapists, administrators), who then train other staff (such as aides and paraprofessionals) in the “proper” use of restraints on students and students with disabilities. Notes the New York Times about the background of Handle with Care’s founder:
Bruce Chapman, the company’s founder and president, is a onetime psychiatric-hospital technician who said he had developed his “take down” restraint during a confrontation with an aggressive patient and refined it as a martial arts devotee who earned a black belt.
The basis for Chapman’s qualifications are his experiences as a psychiatric technician in the in-patient unit at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia and also in martial arts training. The San Mateo County Office of Education uses an organization called the Crisis Prevention Institute to train teachers and staff in restraint techniques; its founder AlGene Caraulia Sr.’s background in in martial arts. Another founder, Gene Wyka, has a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Crisis Prevention Institute has trained staff in group homes, prisons, elderly homes and schools.
School districts need to be transparent about who is providing the training for using such potentially dangerous techniques, especially as these will be used on children and, in particular, children with disabilities, many of whom are not able to communicate what is happening to them. Such requirements for transparency, and about keeping parents fully and routinely informed about the use of restraints and such procedures has to be part of any federal guidelines. You can be sure, once the Department of Education issues the promised guidelines about restraints and other aversive procedures this fall, I’ll be reading and reporting on what they say, and what they don’t.
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Photo of school in San Mateo, CA, by JoeInSouthernCA
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