Schools are Sending Disabled Students to ER for Timeouts

Schools across the United States are required by law to accommodate disabled students, who have a right to public access and education as set out in law, court precedent and global discussions about human rights. The spectrum of accommodations made available, however, varies widely, despite having frameworks in place intended to support disabled people who want to attend school. Consequently, students often find themselves navigating a world of discrimination, frustration and sometimes active abuse; they’re locked into solitary classrooms, forced to eat crayons covered in hot sauce, restrained for “acting out,” and, apparently, sent to emergency rooms for behavioral outbursts.

When a disabled student starts school, schools usually sit down with her, her teachers, parents and her care providers to discuss an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The IEP discusses the specific accommodations she needs to do well in school, including the steps the school should take to deal with behavioral issues. This document creates clear guidelines to help teachers instruct their disabled students equitably and with a mind to the wishes of their students, their parents and the caregivers in their lives — for example, a student’s psychiatrist might have specific advice about helping a student handle anxiety.

IEPs, however, are often ignored, as parents report when struggling with school districts to get basic accommodations, or when demanding to know why schools have specifically overridden their requests. This has been the case with several schools in New York City, where staff members are apparently sending children to local emergency rooms when they experience outbursts, using the ER as an effective “time out” room for these students…even after parents have said they do not want their children taken offsite to handle outbursts.

Dealing with potentially disruptive students in the classroom can be extremely challenging. Often, approaches to student behavior focus on suppressing it, rather than determining why a student is having a tantrum or acting out in other ways, attempting to establish communication and resolving the situation. Unfortunately, one of the most common approaches is restraint and/or seclusion of disabled students, which can actually serve to make students more anxious and upset.

Imagine how much more upset students get when they not only are removed from the classroom, but they’re sent to a hospital filled with unfamiliar people, sounds, sights and smells. Some students have actually become afraid of hospitals as well as people in uniform (fearing the police and hospital personnel who attempt to care for them when they’re tossed into the ER).

“…a now-7-year-old with autism known as D.E. was sent to the ER repeatedly as a kindergartner after having tantrums even though he was often calm before the ambulance arrived and his mother asked to take him home instead. On several occasions, the mother and son spent between four and six hours at the hospital before staff determined that the boy did not require emergency services, the lawsuit alleges,” Disability Scoop reports.

The refusal to honor parent wishes comes on top of yet another insult: in the aftermath of ER visits, parents are receiving big bills for ambulance transport and hospitalization, in addition to spending hours in the ER waiting for their children to be evaluated. Schools are effectively forcing parents to pay for their children to receive unnecessary interventions from emergency services, even when many such students come from low-income communities where parents may struggle with health care costs (even under insurance reform). Furthermore, they’re wasting valuable EMS resources by using hospitals as a discipline tool.

Part of the problem may be a lack of staff members, including support staff, to help teachers, aides and other personnel implement IEPs, interact with disabled students in distress, and work with parents to achieve the best outcomes for students. Thanks to funding cuts, overcrowding, school closures and other factors, many schools are struggling to accommodate pupils. Sending difficult students to the emergency room, however, is certainly not the solution.

Photo credit: Taber Andrew Bain.


Kelsey Valois
Kelsey Valois3 years ago

My school is very accepting, luckily. I know one horribly disfigured guy with down syndrome, very smart, two kids in wheel chairs, one who got an educational award for getting phenomenal grades, many kids on medication, quite a few kids in music class who are deaf, very good at playing, and i myself have Aspergers syndrome. We have a very good special needs group and i haven't met one person who abuses these kids.

Jess No Fwd Plz K.
Jessica K3 years ago

Not sure what they are trying to accomplish with this, except a quick shut-up instead of actually addressing their students needs. Thanks.

Susan B.
Susan B3 years ago

As a retired paramedic it would be so very hard for me to accept these children on my ambo. I would not have a choice, but my heart would be heavy. What would be good is what I would say after my arrival to the ER with these kids. So sad to treat children this way. And we wonder why there are adults that act the way they do.

Debbie Miller
Debbie Miller3 years ago

As a special ed teacher I find this very disturbing!! Are we there to help these children grow and progress or to use any means to try to escape from them or even hurt them.... ?

Berny p.
Berny p3 years ago

The key to this is to know which kids, belong, & can benefit from being in a classroom & which need to be in special state schools where their "special needs are met."

Reading between the lines, this means the parents get a much needed break, & these kids would be way too disruptive to have them "mainlined."

The real problems come in when parents aren't willing to accept the fact that their children don't belong in a normal classroom.

If a classroom has 30 students, & 28 of them can learn, then how much disruption is too much?

Every time there's a disturbance, then the education of the othet 28, is being compromised.

Sharon Ganzhorn
Sharon Ganzhorn3 years ago

Wesley S., I never once even implied that I was angry at the disabled kids. Obviously, they were brought there by people who should know better. I just said that it was a waste of medical resources for an already overtaxed medical system and I think it's wrong that people who may be genuinely sick or injured may have to wait for the much needed bed. Not sure why you concluded I was angry at special needs kids.

Ana Marija R.
ANA MARIJA R3 years ago

John c. this children are human beings with their Equal human rights. The rest of the stories are just pathetic excuses (a lack of staff members, including support staff, to help teachers, aides and other personnel implement IEPs, interact with disabled students in distress, and work with parents to achieve the best outcomes for students...).
Kudos to so many beautiful humans/teachers who has found the way how to transform disability into different possibilities for everyone around...
Where there is a will, everything is possible, not only in fairytales... and as You said: "You're entitled to your own beliefs. You're not entitled to try & force them on me.".. or the rest of the world.

Goddess Mary Oliveau
Past Member 3 years ago

Special Ed Students have their own classrooms, and a Teacher that is supposed to be capable of handling these situations. Maybe they need better training, or better updated courses in this area.

They should not be calling for Emergency Services in non-emergency situations. If you, or I were doing this, there would be Charges brought against us for "False Reporting."

Ponder/Meditate/Pray for Peace.

Mary Oliveau { hugs }

Roberta G.
Roberta G3 years ago this true? Is this a common occurance in NYC or one/two isolated instances? I have my doubts because the writer cites an example of a student being forced to eat crayons dipped in hot sauce which is NOT true. The crayons were dipped in hot sauce to keep the child from eating the wax crayons.

The point is that one inaccuracy can taint an entire article, casting doubts on it's truthfulness.

Jane C.
Jane C3 years ago

People who would send disabled kids to ERs, in the absence of self-harm, should not be working with them.