Schools Must Not Use Aversive Techniques such as Restraint and Seclusion To Change Behaviors
“As many reports have documented, the use of restraint and seclusion can have very serious consequences, including, most tragically, death. Furthermore, there continues to be no evidence that using restraint or seclusion is effective in reducing the occurrence of the problem behaviors that frequently precipitate the use of such techniques.” ‐U.S. Dept. of Education, 2012, at iii (emphasis added).
Recent headlines described an eight-year-old, biracial boy being restrained and arrested at his Florida school in 2018 after hitting a substitute teacher without hurting her. He had an IEP for emotional and behavioral disabilities, and she was unaware of that. His wrists were too small for the police handcuffs, but he now has an arrest record, although the case was dismissed after his mother fought it for nine months. He recently filed a civil rights lawsuit based on the incident.
This is only the latest example of a trend examined in The Kids We Lose, a documentary produced by a non-profit working to end such practices. This moving film publicizes the fact that children with disabilities are more likely than non-disabled children to be disciplined using techniques used to control or modify challenging behavior by force or isolation, including corporal punishment, personal physical restraint, mechanical restraint, and seclusion (solitary confinement) in closets or rooms, often leading to suspension, expulsion, and/or arrest.
Some parents might assume such techniques are no longer used. But although restraint and seclusion are not considered acceptable or effective educationally or psychologically, some schools use them. In 2019, The Chicago Tribune and Pro Publica reported on these practices in the Chicago public schools, and National Public Radio (NPR) aired an expose focusing on the Fairfax, VA, public schools. Schools use these techniques disproportionately on children with disabilities, children of color, and boys, even starting at very early ages. The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) found this in a comprehensive March, 2018 report, and the United States Department of Education reported the same finding in 2016. That restraint and seclusion have become common is in part due to the recent ubiquity of school resource officers (SROs), often either current or former police – for whom such techniques are standard operating procedure with adults.
Further, the GAO found in 2019 that schools across the nation greatly under-report the use of these aversive techniques. The figures in the 2019 GAO overview show that school districts in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland report fewer incidents of restraint and seclusion than the national average, likely showing lower reporting rates, not fewer actual incidents. Confirming this, the GAO observed that the Philadelphia School District and the public schools in Prince George’s County, Maryland, were not even keeping track of their use of restraint and seclusion in 2019. Our firm represents students and parents in these areas and districts.
These practices are harmful to a child’s cognitive, social, and emotional development, and they often deny a free, appropriate public education (“FAPE”) to that student — not only due to the time away from the classroom, but also due to lasting trauma. This can give rise to claims for compensatory education. They also lead directly to what is known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” The American Bar Association (ABA), and the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), an organization to which our office belongs, are just two of many groups that have taken strong stances against the use of these practices.
Further, USA Today recently gave light to the alarming fact that most private schools designed specifically for students with disabilities do not have to report the use of restraints and seclusion, unlike public schools.
There are much better ways to change behaviors of children who are seen as endangering themselves or others. Positive behavior supports, trauma-informed care, and collaborative and proactive solutions are well-researched and effective techniques for changing students’ unwanted behavior. These strategies are calming, peaceful, proactive, encourage partnership with families, and help children whose behaviors need to be modified to continue to feel that school is a safe space. Lives in the Balance, a non-profit, has established a separate website of free resources, at https://truecrisisprevention.org/ , and the United States Department of Education published a resource guide in 2012. In Pennsylvania, aversive techniques such as restraint, seclusion, and corporal punishment should not be used. Instead, positive techniques, as outlined in a positive behavior support plan, must be used instead, and anything else only as a last resort. Unfortunately, however, there are currently no federal laws in place that govern the use of restraint and seclusion in schools across the nation.
We strongly advise parents of students with disabilities, especially behavioral and emotional, to check with their children, if possible, and with their children’s schools, whether public or private, about how students are disciplined for undesirable behavior. Schools must inform parents when these practices are used on their children, but they often do not. Warning signs include schools requiring advance notice of parental visits, bruising, and children resisting school, especially those with limited or no verbal skills.
As always, our firm stands ready to represent children and parents in these and other disability education situations, even during the pandemic. Initial consultations are free, and in many appropriate cases, we represent students without any payment by the family.
 See https://wamu.org/story/19/03/13/children-are-routinely-isolated-in-some-fairfax-county-schools-the-district-didnt-report-it/#.XIjryBNKi-U and https://wamu.org/story/19/06/18/u-s-schools-underreport-how-often-students-are-restrained-or-secluded-watchdog-says/
 See https://www.stophurtingkids.com/ , https://www.copaa.org/page/RestSeclusion?&hhsearchterms=%22copaa+and+declaration+and+principles+and+against+and+use%22 , https://www.stophurtingkids.com/post/american-bar-association-passes-resolution-on-use-of-seclusion-and-restraint , and https://www.stophurtingkids.com/aprais .
 See 22 Pa. Code § 711.46, and 22 Pa. Code §§ 10.2, 10.23, and 14.133.