The Reality of Restraints

Senator Tom HarkinDear ABILITY readers,

At a recent event in Washington, Robert Ernst described how as a first grader, he was dragged down the hallway of his school by his wrists and thrown into isolation by school officials. He remained unattended in a dark, small room for up to 30 minutes at a time because he had a learning disability and was sometimes disruptive in class. At that same event, Jackie Lynn Nelson described how her daughter was subjected to seclusion and restraints in Minnesota, resulting in a long-term anxiety disorder.

Unfortunately, these cases are not unique. A six-month investigation conducted by my staff found that each year, there are tens of thousands of students who are robbed of a safe and supportive learning environment due to the frequent and ongoing use of seclusion and restraints. Most striking, the investigation found disturbing evidence that families whose children are being subjected to these practices have little or no recourse through school procedures or through the courts.

This is simply unacceptable—one, because we know that these practices provide no educational benefit, but also because they can result in physical injuries, psychological trauma, and even death. Across the ten cases reviewed for this report, my committee staff found cases involving a suicide in a seclusion room, continued isolation despite the objection of parents and independent experts and, perhaps most amazingly, consistent use of restraints and seclusions in the absence of parental notification.

In addition to documenting the harm that comes from these practices, the investigation found that:

Families may not know if their children are being secluded or restrained and may not know for how long or how frequently; Current due process proceedings to cease the use of seclusion and restraints on children are insufficient for families; and families often have great difficulty proving their children, many of whom may not be able to speak for themselves, have experienced psychological trauma.

To address the use of seclusion and restraints in schools in a meaningful way, I am calling for the following actions:

Create training programs to ensure all teachers, administrators, and other school personnel know how to implement preventative programming and positive interventions.

Eliminate the use of seclusion, and use restraints only in emergencies. Such use should be reported immediately to parents and authorities.

Amend the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to allow families to file civil actions to stop the practice of seclusion and/or restraints in court before exhausting remedies available under IDEA.

To ensure that these solutions are put into action as soon as possible, I introduced the Keeping All Students Safe Act with my colleague, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT). The legislation aims to give school personnel the knowledge and resources they need to respond in a positive, supportive, and safe manner when challenging behaviors do occur.

We must do more than

Sincerely,

Senator Tom Harkin

Senator Tom Harkin
Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) is Chairman of the
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee

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