Sunday, September 9, 2012
Schools, Restraint, and Seclusion: Terror May Be Worse Than Spanking
Several organizations are working hard to prohibit the use of spanking as a punishment in U.S. schools, and for a variety of reasons they are probably right to do so. In my opinion, though, there are more common and more dangerous “disciplinary” methods than spanking used in schools, and these deserve our attention because they are so often directed toward special needs children.
Physical restraint in certain positions and for more than a brief period can be fatal, especially when the restrained person is being treated with certain medications. While that problem is well known, it is harder for most people to imagine that seclusion can be terrifying and damaging in its own way, especially for younger children or those with handicapping conditions.
In the New York Times today, the journalist and filmmaker Bill Lichtenstein describes his young daughter’s experiences with seclusion as they occurred a few years ago in a public school in Lexington, MA (www.nytimes.com/2012/09/09/opinion/sunday/a-terrifying-way-to-discipline-children.html). Lichtenstein mentions that the five-year-old kindergartener, who had some language delays, began to have serious tantrums at home after starting school. Communications from the school suggested that she was doing well and did not mention any unusual disciplinary problems. Her parents had no idea that she was being punished by any method involving seclusion-- indeed, that she was being punished at all-- until they received a call saying they should come to get her because she had taken all her clothes off! When they got to the school, they found the little girl standing by herself in a basement mop closet with one light bulb. She had been locked in the closet five times that morning and could not get out when she needed to pee, so had taken off her clothes in order not to wet them.
What were the behaviors that led to her being locked up? Were they matters of safety for herself or others-- the approved purpose for use of seclusion? No, she had failed to follow directions. (Remember, this was a child with language delays.) She had been placed in seclusion almost every day for three months without any communication of this fact to her parents. The short-term result was tantrums; now, years later, she still has nightmares. A lawsuit, settled out of court, has forced the school system to pay for her ongoing treatment.
What is the story here? How can schools get away with this kind of treatment of children? It’s simply because they ARE schools. A set of HHS rules for psychiatric hospitals, residential treatment centers for children, and group homes, initiated in 1999 and finalized in 2007 (www.gao.gov/assets/230/228149.pdf) , restricted the use of restraint and seclusion in those places and required documentation of all restraint and seclusion events. But these rules did not apply to schools. In fact, one Seventh Day Adventist boarding school in West Virginia, which was the subject of complaints about restraint and seclusion several years ago, argued successfully that as it was a school and not a residential treatment center it was not subject to restrictions. (This school was and is a holding area for children adopted from abroad whose parents can’t cope with them.)
Meanwhile, efforts are being made by the U.S Department of Education to develop control over use of restraint and seclusion in schools. The publication Restraint and Seclusion: Research Document ( www2.ed.gov/policy/seclusion/restraints-and-seclusion-resources.pdf; May, 2012) describes a set of principles and procedures that States and school systems should consider when they establish their own policies about restraint and seclusion as disciplinary techniques. This document stresses that “Restraint and seclusion should not be used as routine school safety measures; that is, they should not be implemented except in situations where a child’s behavior poses imminent danger of serious physical harm to self or others and not as a routine strategy implemented to address instructional problems or inappropriate behavior (e.g., disrespect, noncompliance, insubordination, out of seat), as a means of coercion or retaliation, or as a convenience”. The reference to using restraint or seclusion as coercion or retaliation resonates strongly with reports on their use in hospitals and RTCs in the past, when staff were observed to antagonize vulnerable individuals until their escalating actions “gave permission” for restraint.
According to the DE document, there are presently no Federal guidelines for the use of restraint and seclusion in schools, and like many other aspects of education in the United States, local policies vary enormously in both public and private schools. As the document implies, there is further variation that results from better or worse training of school staff and their understanding of methods of behavior management.
One common confusion (and this is my point, not DE’s, although again it is implied in the document) is about the differences between time-out and seclusion; it may be that some poorly-trained or supervised school staff members fail to understand the distinction. Time-out (for all its faults) is an acceptable behavior management technique, it is intended to calm the child, and it is done in an observable, non-locked setting. Seclusion is leaving a child alone in a locked area where he or she may be able to be seen but may not be able to communicate with anyone. The experience of the Lichtenstein’s daughter was clearly not time-out-- time-outs do not involve being locked up alone in a small room for an hour, with daily repetitions.
DE, under the leadership of Arne Duncan, is to be congratulated on starting a dialogue about schools’ use of seclusion as well as of restraint. However, I would think still better of the document if it addressed issues of developmentally appropriate practice and the fact that young or communication-impaired children are likely to be terrified by seclusion as older children may not be. It seems to me very possible that a five-year-old would find being physically restrained by a teacher less frightening than seclusion, because at least someone would be there (I’m not recommending restraint, of course).
The fact that seclusion does not in itself cause physical harm does not make it acceptable for school use, although unimaginative adults may think it of little concern. Terror does not support learning and can well cause long-term ill effects. I believe that getting this insidiously harmful practice under national control is a more pressing priority than prohibiting spanking. Requirements for documentation of seclusion events would be a good start toward regulation.