When Does Physical Restraint Become Abuse?

The tale of an autistic student in Massachusetts shows the issues that come with restraint practices.

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Most children who get hurt at school can tell their parents what happened, but what about those who cannot? Twelve-year-old Carmen Maggiore is autistic and cannot communicate verbally, so when his mother, Linda Auger, noticed deep purple bruises on her son's arms and abrasions on his upper chest, lower back, and buttocks, she couldn't ask him to tell her what happened. Auger, who lives in Braintree, Mass., believes her son suffered what many parents dread: abuse at the hands of his former teacher, an adult Auger trusted with Carmen's well-being and education. The teacher has said no such abuse took place. It's an example of the difficult circumstances that parents and schools face when trying to sort out whether abuse occurred in a classroom.

Records maintained by the South Shore Educational Collaborative, a Massachusetts day school for children with special needs that Carmen attended, show that the teacher, who could not be reached for comment, physically restrained Carmen for disciplinary reasons about once a week over a three-month period in early 2008, events Auger believes caused her son's strange injuries. With special-needs children, restraint is sometimes acceptable, and there is a fine line between proper restraint and abuse. Restraint is a widely accepted response to an emergency situation—such as when a student threatens to run into dangerous highway traffic or expresses the intent to assault a classmate. However, some educators use such techniques regularly as a means to modify seemingly harmless student behavior, blurring the line between necessary restraint and abusive restraint. "A review of the history of [restraint and seclusion] indicates that these procedures are prone to misapplication and abuse, placing students at equal or more risk than their problem behavior," wrote Robert Horner and George Sugai, directors of the Department of Education's office responsible for student behavior interventions. In Carmen's case, his former teacher and former classroom aides have divergent views about whether his teacher's use of restraint was warranted. Mary Ericson, one of the teacher's classroom aides, told police that in one instance, the teacher gripped Carmen's head, lifted him off the ground, and restrained the 4-foot, 60-pound boy over a desk. Carmen's offense, according to Ericson's statement, was pinching the teacher after becoming frustrated by her instruction to break one of his classroom routines, a task that can be difficult for a child like Carmen, who also suffers from an obsessive compulsive disorder.

Ericson and two other teacher aides reported what they say was "abuse" witnessed in Carmen's classroom to officials at the school and the Massachusetts Department of Social Services, according to an investigative action report written by the Randolph Police Department. But when the police department represented Carmen and his classmates at a hearing last fall, the court found there was insufficient evidence to warrant criminal charges against the teacher. The court cited inconsistencies in the aides' testimony along with overwhelmingly positive testimony about the accused teacher from her colleagues at the day school, men and women who praised her both as a teacher and as a person. Concerns for her son's safety unassuaged, Auger removed Carmen from the school, and other parents did the same. The teacher continues to work with special-needs students in Massachusetts but now teaches at the middle school level. Because Carmen and his classmates could not speak for themselves and weigh in on what took place in their classroom, their parents may never really know what happened to the students at school. Auger hopes for a law requiring schools to install surveillance cameras in all classrooms where teachers work with nonverbal autistic students, a practice that could offer some objective answers when parents ask, "What happened?" But on the state level, very few if any laws include provisions about cameras.

Auger and other opponents of restraint practices have found some support at the federal level: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is taking their concerns seriously. Late last week, Duncan followed through on a resolution he made while testifying before the House Education and Labor Committee in May to investigate school districts' use of physical restraint techniques. He sent a letter to every state school chief asking them formally to submit their state's policies on the use of restraint in the classroom. Committee Chairman George Miller, a Democrat representing parts of northern California, pledged legislation that would protect students from abusive restraint techniques by summer's end, though no proposed bills have been made public yet.