Students Suffer Abusive Restraint, GAO Says

Struggling to control special-needs students sometimes leads teachers to use risky techniques.

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Cindy Kilmer will never forget the look of that chair. Worn, leather straps crisscrossed over its high-back, wooden structure—one strap to hold the head and additional straps to restrain the chest, waist, knees, ankles, and wrists. It resembled an electric chair, Kilmer says. The chair is designed to support someone who cannot sit up on his own, but special education teachers at one West Virginia elementary school used it to restrain Kilmer's then 4-year-old daughter, Christy, who has cerebral palsy and autism, for being "uncooperative," according to the findings of an investigation conducted by the Government Accountability Office. Kilmer says she saw the chair in her daughter's classroom while picking her up from school.

Christy attended preschool for only nine days before Kilmer learned of the restraint and removed her daughter from school more than 10 years ago, but the effects of the alleged abuse are still evident today. Doctors diagnosed Christy with post-traumatic stress disorder that causes her to experience extreme bouts of anxiety and anger, GAO investigators found. Though she was fully potty-trained before her teachers restrained her, Kilmer says Christy, at age 15, will wet her pants if she hears her name and the word teacher spoken in the same sentence. Christy becomes agitated when she is driven past her old school, and Kilmer need not look farther than her own home—the broken furniture and the fist-size holes dotting the walls—to see the costly manifestations of her daughter's anger. "We can deal with the beatings and the broken walls," Kilmer says. "But how can we heal her brain? I can't take the abuse out of her."

The Government Accountability Office found that many special education teachers use potentially dangerous restraint practices to control minor student misbehaviors such as speaking out of turn or refusing to remain seated. According to a GAO report released in May, investigators identified hundreds of allegations of abuse that resulted in emotional trauma, physical injury, and even death among special education students across the country. They also found that many of the allegedly abusive teachers are still working in the classroom—at least one of the three teachers responsible for restraining Christy was still teaching at her former school.

Though the GAO report could not statistically quantify the scope of the abuse because no federal agency (or private entity) gathers data on use of the techniques, two other reports released this year call the problem both widespread and underreported. One of these reports, written by the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, discusses a survey the organization conducted in March and April 2009 that identified 155 school-age children from across the country (more than half of whom are 6 to 10 years old) who had allegedly been restrained or secluded in an abusive manner at school. The other report, written by the National Disability Rights Network, highlights accounts of alleged abuse from nearly all the regional offices it operates across the country. The rise of reported abusive incidents is leading some school administrators to use alternative techniques for resolving confrontation, such as positive reinforcement.

The National Disability Rights Network began advocating against abuse of restraint and seclusion techniques in institutions for the mentally and physically disabled 30 years ago, but when executive director Curt Decker realized the abuse had crept into the nation's special education classrooms, he was stunned. The first instance of in-school abuse Decker can recall happened about eight years ago when a girl who has Down syndrome was strapped to a chair and put in a closet by her teacher. NDRN provided legal services for the girl's family. Since then, the protection and advocacy centers NDRN operates in each state have seen steadily increasing numbers of similar cases.

The reports of abuse reached a critical mass last summer: A conference call among NDRN representatives from every state produced "a horrendous litany of five cases of abuse, 10 cases of abuse, injured kids, dead kids," Decker says. So NDRN decided to raise awareness of the problem in a different way. 

Clarification added on 07/10/09: The article was expanded to note that since changing to the positive reinforcement system, Centennial School has rarely had to call for police assistance.