Not only was 9-year-old Christopher Baker placed in a bag and the drawstring tied on December 14 at Mercer County Intermediate School in Harrodsburg in central Kentucky, but it wasn’t even the first time. This inhumane and inappropriate treatment had been previously used on Christopher, who’s autistic and in a special education program. His parents had not been informed.
On that December morning last week, Christopher’s mother, Sandra Baker, heard him say “‘Momma, is that you?’” from inside the duffel bag and found him “stuffed” in it; she said “‘his poor little eyes were as big as half dollars and he was sweating.’” An aide had been standing beside the bag and told Baker that she thought Christopher had been in it for about 20 minutes, but she was not exactly sure how long.
According to the Associated Press (via the San Jose Mercury News), school officials told Baker that Christopher had been placed in what they call the “therapy bag” because he had been “‘jumping off the walls.’” She met with school officials a few days after the incident and was “told the boy had smirked at the teacher when he was told to put down a basketball, then threw it across the room.”
What happened to Christopher makes it all too clear why we need national guidelines about the use of restraints and seclusion in public schools, and especially regarding students with disabilities. Such students may be “misbehaving” (as the Mercer County school district put it) for reasons such as sensory overload, frustration or anxiety, and not be able to communicate their feelings and needs effectively in language (indeed, some students, like my 14-year-old son Charlie are minimally or non-verbal). Furthermore, parents should be informed immediately after restraints or seclusion are used on a child, and parents and the student’s Child Study Team need to meet and discuss pro-active strategies to address difficult behaviors.
Earlier this week, Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin filed the “Keeping All Students Safe Act”, which closely resembles a bill filed by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., in April. While Miller’s bill passed the House of Representations, it was not taken up by the Senate; Harkin’s bill still needs cosponsors, as Nirva Shah writes on Edweek’s On Special Education blog. Some of what the bill would provide are the following:
…ban the use of physical restraints except in emergency situations; prohibit physical restraints that affect a student’s primary means of communication; forbid putting seclusion or restraint into a student’s individualized education program or IE; require states to collect data on the use of the measures, and ask schools to meet with parents and staff after a restraint is used and plan interventions that would prevent their use in the future.
Kentucky does not have laws regarding the use of restraints and seclusion in its public schools, according to its Department of Education’s website. Back in July, a state agency had sent a letter to special education directors, describing two formal complaints that the state had received:
In one, “a student (was) nearly asphyxiated while being restrained,” and in the other, a student vomited from panic attacks after spending most of an academic year “confined to a closet, with no ventilation or outside source of light,” according to the letter.
The punitive, degrading and simply uncalled for treatment of Christopher Baker — placed in a bag that was drawn shut — sounds like some horrific torture method from ancient or medieval times. We need to enact legislation like the “Keeping All Students Safe Act” to ensure that our students who have some of the greatest challenges are protected, treated with dignity and taught, not tormented.
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