BALTIMORE (TND) — Across the United States, thousands of students are subjected to a set of controversial practices known as seclusion and restraint at school. It can involve young children locked in dark rooms, or pinned down by adults.
Generally, seclusion and restraint are supposed to be safety measures reserved for very specific scenarios but a Spotlight on America investigation found the practices being used for discipline of minor behavior problems, sometimes leading to injury and even death. The overwhelming majority of incidents involve students with disabilities.
**WARNING: SCENES IN THE FOLLOWING STORY MAY BE DISTURBING FOR SOME VIEWERS**
It was surveillance video that revealed the horrifying truth about what a Maryland boy experienced within the walls of a place he should feel safe: his school. The 2015 video shows the 8-year old being dragged down a hallway by three school employees and dropped into a windowless room.
More than 10 minutes later, when the door was reopened, the little boy is seen face down, limp and lying in his own blood. His mother, Linda, who asked us not to use her last name or show her face on camera, says she learned he'd been hurt from a phone call.
"I got a call from the school nurse and her exact words were 'I think they broke his nose'," she said. "I was barely able to speak as a mother. You can imagine I was shattered."
Shaken and not fully aware of how her son had been injured, she brought him to the emergency room for X-rays, where records show he was diagnosed with a deviated septum. After getting him settled at home, Linda opened her son's backpack and found the clothes he'd been wearing. His shirt, jeans and socks were blood-soaked, straight through to his underwear.
This was a battle between adults and a child," Linda, the mother of a child who was repeatedly secluded and restrained, told us. "It's heartbreaking as a mother. It's heartbreaking. And that’s when I realized this was even worse than what I imagined."
Linda learned from watching that surveillance video the following day that her son had been injured during a controversial practice known as seclusion. She still doesn't understand exactly how he was hurt given that documents claim a 10 minute portion of the video is missing. But Linda knows the incident captured on tape wasn't the first time her child had been secluded, despite her objections.
Linda's son has special needs. She says he had been abused and neglected in foster care and has multiple disabilities. But at the school he attended, dozens of records Linda provided show he was repeatedly subjected to both seclusion and another practice called restraint.
That's despite a certified pediatric nurse practitioner sending a letter to the school in 2013, specifically requesting that he not be restrained or placed in a padded room, calling it "unacceptable and traumatizing" for him.
Seclusion and restraint are when students are isolated in special rooms or closets, or physically held or tied down.
Though the practices have been used for years in schools across the nation, many parents may be unaware.
This is going on in your school system," Linda told us. "Your district has a school that has these rooms in it, and they're using them."
The practices are being used despite a known risk that has been documented for years. A 2009 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) highlighted injuries, deaths, and even criminal convictions related to these practices at schools across the United States.
According to that report:
More than a decade later, the tactics are still being used, with recent cases grabbing national headlines. In Michigan in 2020, 16-year old Cornelius Frederick died after being restrained at a youth facility for throwing a sandwich. That disturbing incident was caught on tape. Last year, 21-year-old Xavier Hernandez died after being restrained at a Fort Worth, Texas school for students with disabilities.
According to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education, 101,990 students were subjected to restraint or seclusion during the 2017-2018 school year. But we may not have the full picture of exactly how often the tactics are used, with a 2020 GAO report citing illogical data, and the need to address quality issues with how the data related to seclusion and restraint is tracked.
But what's most disturbing about the available data is the picture it paints about who is most often subjected to these practices. The U.S. Department of Education's information shows:
Although guidance from the Department of Education says these practices should only be used "if a child's behavior poses imminent danger of serious physical harm" to themselves or others, Spotlight on America has obtained documents showing kids secluded or restrained for throwing paper, spitting, grabbing, pinching, running from the classroom and what school officials have described generically as "unsafe behavior".
Linda and other impacted families have told us the tactics aren't just being used for imminent harm, especially when it comes to children with special needs. "Yes, they yell and make noises. Yes, they throw things," she said, "But we live in a country that educates all children, including special needs children. So I say we need to find a way to do it correctly."
It's a sentiment echoed by Maryland father Guy Stephens, who calls seclusion and restraint "outdated crisis management approaches," and says they can be dangerous. That's why he's dedicated his life to advocating against the practices. Stephens says his son, a young man who also has special needs, was secluded and restrained multiple times at a Maryland school.
My son had a really bad experience. He was so traumatized," said Guy Stephens with the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint. "He was afraid to return to school."
After the incidents involving his son, Stephens made a promise that he would do everything he could to make sure the practices were not used again on his son or others. That led to the formation of the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint. Stephens, who serves as executive director, has become a nationally recognized expert on the issue.
It's a civil rights issue. It's a human rights issue. It's a disability rights issue," Stephens said.
Part of Stephens' mission is to raise awareness to help improve training, develop alternative approaches to behavior management, and emphasize the use of de-escalation strategies that experts say would better support children and protect everyone involved.
Much of his focus is on a practice called Ukeru, a trauma-informed program that focuses on conflict resolution and redirection in an effort to keep children and caregivers safe without the use of seclusion or restraint.
Stephens says school systems have to make a change because the current reliance on seclusion and restraint has a long-lasting, detrimental impact.
"The impact is significant trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder and physical injuries. But it's not just injuries to the kids. It's also injuries that teachers and staff. And here at the alliance, we care deeply about everyone involved," Stephens explained. "We want safer schools for the students, the teachers and the staff. And the point is that people often believe they need things like restraining, seclusion to keep everyone safe. Well, the opposite is really true."
The Alliance is among the organizations currently calling for a national ban on seclusion and restraint. And Stephens has taken his advocacy in front of Congress, testifying at a recent hearing about the issue.
Linda, the Maryland mom whose son was injured in that seclusion incident captured on surveillance video, says he never returned to that school after the incident. But she says the district did promise to make alterations to its seclusion and restraint policy as a result of her family's case, which was formally reported to the state's department of education.
But Linda is not stopping at her own district. She wants others to know about seclusion and restraint so they'll be empowered to call for change. She knows firsthand the emotional and physical toll it can take.
I challenge the experts to show us anywhere how this helps the behavior. How this isn’t traumatizing. Because you can’t. There is no positive thing that comes from this," Linda said. "It doesn't change behavior. It re-traumatizes children. And it opens them up to injuries and all other kinds of things. Why are you continuing to do this?"
Linda tells us she shared the video (see above) of her son's incident to shed even more light on an issue that often plays out with no evidence. The video, she says, proves the practices are happening, with alarming consequences.
"It's unbelievable that in this country, the richest country in the world, that we are treating disabled children like this," she said. "No one would believe it."
Spotlight on America is digging more into the issue of seclusion and restraint, including those who say the practices are necessary for student and teacher safety. Part Two of our investigative series that looks into policies state by state along with the call for national legislation publishes on Thurs., March 24.