13-Year-Old Autistic Student Dies After Restraint at School

A 13-year-old autistic student in California died last month after being restrained at Guiding Hands, the disability-focused boarding school where he lived. The case is still under investigation, but it highlights a long and bitter fight that has mostly stayed out of the news: The push to ban the use of restraint and seclusion in educational settings, because these practices are stigmatizing, harmful, and sometimes even fatal.

The student has been described as “severely autistic,” which is not a diagnostic term and doesn’t really provide much insight into the specific nature of his impairments. School staff claimed he became “violent” and put him in what’s known as a “prone restraint,” where he would have been positioned face down. After approximately an hour, authorities say he became nonresponsive, so school staff started CPR and called 911. He was taken to the hospital, where he later died.

These basic details are consistent with other cases in which people have died or experienced serious injury after being restrained, though formal findings haven’t been released yet, so his death can’t be categorically attributed to his treatment at the school.

For the time being, the school’s certification has been suspended, which bars it from accepting new enrollments. The outcome of the investigation may determine the school’s future, but it should be noted that according to the Fresno Bee it has been the subject of lawsuits regarding its restraint practices in the past.

Many people are surprised to learn that in most states, it’s legal to restrain students of all ages, with very few restrictions. Similarly, students can be placed in seclusion, isolated in rooms by themselves away from other kids, often deprived of equal educational access. States also permit the use of “aversives,” the most extreme of which may be the electric shock devices worn by students at the Judge Rotenberg Center in Massachusetts.

California actually passed a bill banning the use of restraint in many circumstances, but permitting it in instances where there is a “clear and present danger,” as staff claims there was in this case. The relatively progressive state, which houses a robust disability rights community, had a very mixed record on this issue in the past, with investigations finding evidence of abuse in California schools, especially segregated facilities that only serve disabled students.

The disability community feels that restraint and seclusion are inherently dehumanizing and dangerous. Many educators are starting to agree, noting that these practices are often used as punishment, and can actually create more behavioral problems than they solve among people who get confused, upset, and angry when they’re pinned to the ground by staff members, tied to desks, or locked in dark rooms with no stimuli. Even the Department of Education has come out against the use of restraint and seclusion.

This case highlights the extreme and potentially tragic consequences of these practices; in an ideal world, disabled students would be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve, as human beings and equals. For those who don’t communicate verbally, communities would work together to establish communication, whatever that might look like for a given individual.

Hopefully this case will be an incentive to revisit this topic. Critics are pushing for a total ban on these practices paired with requirements for comprehensive disability-competent training for school personnel, led by self-advocates who can encourage people to rethink the way they approach disabled students. Educators, aides, and staff should have training in a variety of deescalation techniques for times when people get agitated or upset, with the goal of heading off a situation where someone could become a danger to themselves and others. This student wasn’t the first to die in circumstances like this, but he could be the last.

Photo credit: Brett Taylor/Getty Images

52 comments

Chad Anderson
Chad A19 days ago

Horrible.

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Maria P
Maria Pabout a month ago

Thank you for sharing

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danii p
danii pabout a month ago

Thanks for sharing.

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danii p
danii pabout a month ago

Thanks for sharing.

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danii p
danii pabout a month ago

Thanks for sharing.

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silja s
silja sabout a month ago

oh the precious child.

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Rita D
Rita Delfingabout a month ago

As someone who is a trainer and has been for over 25 years of non-violent crisis intervention, restraints have their place and so does seclusion however, any restraints must be trained regularly and then practiced regularly. Restraints are not about punishments, restraints if done properly are to help a person calm until they can be in control of themselves. This is also a last resort when all else fails. That is the same with seclusion, I have worked with Autistic people and sometimes the best thing for them is a quiet space, they can't filter like many of us. Again, it needs to be a plan, it's not a punishment and the person should be communicated with so they learn why it's happening, the idea is to get buy in from the person so they learn why we are doing what we are doing, and to help them learn coping skills so they don't respond physically due to frustration. I find these situations very sad.

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Dot A
Dot Aabout a month ago

Linda Indyke makes very sensible comments regarding this poor child's demise due to the ignorance of those 'in charge.' Yes. The job is quite difficult. And No. We've not developed effective ways to handle human behavior that is out of control. Look at the disasters on the public streets when a mentally challenged person acts out. We pour money into capitalistic profiteering, but, we are misers when it comes to mental health care. That would include how to care for our children in public schools as well as other institutions. Good mental health actually covers quite a broad spectrum of 'thinking' and 'behaviors' - which seems to be neglected due to the 'invisible' qualities. Our capitalistic society tends to disregard anything which cannot be easily quantifiable. That's a big mistake in 'thinking' and eventual 'behavior.' It's obvious everywhere. In this case, a child's future can never be experienced because of our ignorance as a society and our failure to comprehend how to deal with a troubled mind. We can do better. We should do better. And if we wish to make the world a better place, we must do better.

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Latoya Brookins
Latoya Babout a month ago

My legs fall asleep after just a few minutes sitting on them, can't imagine being restrained an hour.

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Linda Indyke
Linda Indykeabout a month ago

It is heartbreaking to lose a child when the school system allows adults to restrain children. But that very restraint - holding a child prone on the ground - can be deadly. Trust me, it's the way the restraint is done. The longer the child is held down on the ground, the higher the chance of death, and it is death by asphyxiation.
Too many adults press down on the chest and restrict a child's ability to inhale properly. MD stopped allowing prone restraints of all children in group homes and residential treatment centers more than 15 years ago after a 15 year old child died after being held down prone for 3 hours. Before other types of violence prevention and response programs were approved, EVERY restraint had to have a nurse watching the child to make sure that child was still breathing. I knew prone restraints by adults could asphyxiate a child OR adult because I had started following the cases after the Hartford Courant had published a series of articles on the topic. I was working as a psychiatric-mental health nurse until I retired and I was able to stop the prone holds when a child started demonstrating respiratory distress several times. Trust me, this does happen!

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