Time for a Time Out: Why Are 40,000 Children So Harshly Disciplined in Public Schools?

If psychiatric facilities can eliminate the traumatic punishment techniques of isolation and restraint, why can't public schools?

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(UPDATED) Locked in cramped, windowless rooms, tied in body-restricting bags, denied food, water and bathroom access: all of this is happening not to patients in the overlooked back wards of state mental hospitals, but to children as young as 5 in American public schools.

In the 2009-10 school year, some 40,000 children were restrained or isolated as discipline for bad behavior — most of these students had physical, developmental or learning and behavioral needs — according to Department of Education data. That research was cited in a revealing op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times written by a father whose daughter was deeply traumatized by such treatment. A 2009 Government Accountability Office report also found “hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and death related to the use of these methods on school children during the past two decades,” in both public and private schools.

Practices of restraint and isolation were long used to control resistant patients in psychiatric facilities. But following decades of tragedy and trauma — including hundreds of deaths of patients who were subjected to such treatment — these tactics are now heavily regulated. Federal law requires that the least restrictive measures always be deployed and bans the use of isolation and restraint outright in cases where the patient poses no danger to his or herself or others.  In psychiatric centers, using seclusion or restraint for punishment or discipline is illegal.

In fact, in much of Europe and in some U.S. psychiatric centers, restraints and isolation rooms have been eliminated entirely.

(MORE: How Childhood Trauma May Make the Brain Vulnerable to Addiction, Depression)

Yet there is no federal regulation, let alone an outright ban, of the disciplinary use of these tactics in U.S. public schools. Nor is there any requirement that educators be trained in the use of positive techniques; in many states, teachers may even add corporal punishment like beatings and paddling on top of restraint and isolation. These methods fail to change student behavior, and the result is a horrifyingly similar pattern of trauma, abuse and death among students that ultimately led psychiatry to strictly limit physical seclusion.

Investigative reporter Bill Lichtenstein described in the Times how he discovered the maltreatment of his 5-year-old daughter, Rose, who suffered from speech and language delays, but was otherwise characterized as a “model of age-appropriate behavior” by her preschool. In 2006, Rose’s kindergarten called her parents to come pick her up because she had taken off her clothing:

At school, her mother and I found Rose standing alone on the cement floor of a basement mop closet, illuminated by a single light bulb. There was nothing in the closet for a child — no chair, no books, no crayons, nothing but our daughter standing naked in a pool of urine, looking frightened as she tried to cover herself with her hands. On the floor lay her favorite purple-striped Hanna Andersson outfit and panties.

Rose got dressed and we removed her from the school. We later learned that Rose had been locked in the closet five times that morning. She said that during the last confinement, she needed to use the restroom but didn’t want to wet her outfit. So she disrobed. Rather than help her, the school called us and then covered the narrow door’s small window with a file folder, on which someone had written “Don’t touch!”

We were told that Rose had been in the closet almost daily for three months, for up to an hour at a time. At first, it was for behavior issues, but later for not following directions. Once in the closet, Rose would pound on the door, or scream for help, staff members said, and once her hand was slammed in the doorjamb while being locked inside.

(NOTE: The New York Times has just appended an editor’s note to this story, saying that the child’s mother said in a deposition in a case related to the incident that her daughter was clothed when her parents retrieved her. The closet in question was actually located on a mezzanine floor, not the basement. The fact that she was isolated in a closet and wet herself is not contested).

(MORE: Human Rights Watch: Hundreds of Thousands Still Tortured in the Name of Drug Treatment)

Not only is there no government regulation of the use of isolation and restraint in schools, but there is also no requirement that parents be informed when it occurs. The use of these tactics has risen in public schools as children with developmental and learning disabilities have been increasingly included in mainstream classrooms. But sadly, their teachers are often not given enough training and support to use safer and more effective, positive disciplinary approaches.

These harsh methods have already resulted in death. In one case, described in testimony [PDF] given at Congressional hearings on the issue in 2009, foster mother Toni Price recounted the last day in the life of 14-year-old Cedric Napoleon. On the morning of March 7, 2002, as Cedric left for school, she said, her foster son had beamed, “You know I love you, Ma.”

Cedric had been abused and neglected from the beginning of his life: as a little child, he’d resorted to rummaging through the garbage to feed himself. And like many neglected children, he was slight and small for his age. Despite his size and history of starvation, however, his 8th-grade teacher found it acceptable to use food deprivation as a disciplinary tactic.  He had never been aggressive or violent.

(MORE: Increasingly, Internet Activism Helps Shutter Abusive ‘Troubled Teen’ Boot Camps)

By 2:30 p.m., on the day Cedric died, he had been denied his lunch for more than two hours because he stopped working on his assignments. The boy stood up and tried to walk out of class, but his 230-lb. teacher threw him on the floor and sat on him when he resisted being forced back into his chair.

Panicked, Cedric said he couldn’t breathe. Price testified that the teacher “snapped, ‘If you can speak, you can breathe.’” Soon, the boy could do neither. By the time an ambulance was called, the Cedric was dead.

Over the centuries, psychiatrists learned that restraint and isolation are harmful and rarely necessary — and that simply allowing their widespread use is what what actually made these practices seem essential and important for discipline. But by prioritizing the effort to do away with them, facilities can often eliminate seclusion and restraint completely; many psychiatric institutions in the U.S. have now moved from restraining patients multiple times a week to using the tactic only once or twice a year. All such facilities report improvements in the health and morale of both patients and staff as a result: restraint and seclusion tend to traumatize not only the victims, but also those who must impose the punishment, as well as those who witness the related violence.

(MORE: Treating Addiction: A Top Doc Explains Why Kind Love Beats Tough Love)

If psychiatric centers can do without restraint or isolation, there’s no reason schools should need them. Congress should ban isolation rooms and the use of restraint tactics in all schools, public and private, including “troubled teen” boot camps and wilderness programs, whose disciplinary tactics are also unregulated and have caused children’s deaths. Corporal punishment is banned in institutions housing the elderly, criminals and psychiatric patients, so it should be banned in schools as well.

Moreover, all teachers should be trained in positive behavioral techniques that have been shown to improve behavior in students with or without special needs, and reduce the need for extreme measures. If children display ongoing behavior problems that are so severe that they don’t respond to positive approaches, they need to be helped by specialists, not secretly subjected to repeated and potentially traumatic punishment.

As your elementary school history teacher probably taught you, if you don’t learn from your past, you are condemned to repeat it. We can’t continue to allow schools to resurrect the torturous history of maltreatment in the mentally ill in our most vulnerable children.

MORE: ‘Shock’ School Trial: Where Is the Evidence that Abuse Helps Treat Autism?
Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

55 comments
LaserguymanLaserguyman
LaserguymanLaserguyman

I know im just a kid but school is terrible i mean The school is used by the government as a way to control so that is one reason kids are treated badly or no reason also dont you notice the pattern more (more kids going to school=more kids with brain probems) but i think it was breaking the amendment saying no cruel and unusual punishment having your kids locked up with no way out but you should take your kids out of school and homeschool them because kids learn best when they have freedom to learn what they want when they want if you dont belive me

read the articlehttp://www.salon.com/2013/08/26/school_is_a_prison_and_damaging_our_kids/

RobertSF
RobertSF

A better question is why are so many American children so biologically defective? Why do we have skyrocketing rates of ADD, Asperger's, autism, learning disabilities, developmental disabilities, and an endless list of disorders? The answer to that is not nicer teachers. Those dysfunctional kids are going to grow up into dysfunctional adults. We need to find out why this is happening in the first place.

MichelleKelly
MichelleKelly

This article is AWESOME!! And it is about time the abuse suffered by these children is coming out!!!!!!

 

My child was locked in a prison cell (with no windows, just a slit, kinda like solitary confinment) - cold, small, grey, no furniture -- and he was locked there for up to 6 hours a day for a period of FOUR YEARS before I found out.  They didn't tell the parents, they HID it from the parents (sound proffed rooms) -- I called the Department of Ed to report, and they wouldn't take the case because they said the school my son went to was "approved" .... they refused to investigate.

AND THE OTHER PARENTS AT THE SCHOOL HAVE NO IDEA!!!!!!

THANK YOU FOR THIS ARTICLE!!!! THANK YOU FOR REPORTING THIS!!!!!

Thank you Maia, thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!!!

OTHER PARENTS NEED TO KNOW!!!!!!!!

Helync1
Helync1

I have helped in classrooms at my 5 year old's school, and the chaos there was amazing. Granted there were too many kids in one classroom, 24 to be exact, but the kids would not respond to the teachers giving them directions. The kids were disrespectful, disobedient, angry when they didn't get their way, throwing temper tantrums, etc. The main problem was with the parents that took no responsibility at home to teach these children how to respond to necessary authority. The teachers have no real authority and counting 1, 2, 3 until they obey doesn't work. Parents send their unruly, undisciplined kids to school or day care expecting them to work some kind of "magic" on them. It is NOT the teachers responsibility to teach respect and obedience to proper authority. That should be done at home before they go to school! The teachers would have conferences with the parents, but not much changed. How are the teachers supposed to "discipline" kids and teach them when parents won't or don't know how? I agree that the supposed "discipline" addressed  in the article was extremely inappropriate, but the teachers don't have the resources to handle kids with what are called "special needs" kids in a regular classroom. Yet, parents insist it is their "right" to put their kids there. I think this is so disrespectful of the other kids, their parents, and the teachers because we expect them to do what parents should be doing. 

Talendria
Talendria

This is a thorny issue because there's fault on both sides.  Obviously schools shouldn't be allowed to treat children in a cruel or disrespectful manner at any time or for any reason, and anyone who does so should be prosecuted.  However, parents need to take responsibility for acknowledging their child's behavioral problems and enrolling them in an appropriate classroom.  Too many parents deny their children's psychopathy and insist on mainstreaming, which places teachers and school administrators in the untenable position of trying to serve that child's needs without neglecting his peers.

Megan Pyles
Megan Pyles

This article is extremely inaccurate, I work in behavior modification in Florida schools and there is an abundant amount of legislation that mandates reporting and circumstances under which restraint and isolation can be utilized.  It is a shame that Time has reporters who are not adequately checking facts on their stories.  I had thought it was a reputable magazine...

Ricky Linder
Ricky Linder

Another Example of this horrifying phenomena of abuse against kids is when a child was tied to a four-point restraint board and shocked 31 times over nearly 7 hours. This was in a residential treatment center/school in Massachusetts. It was caught on tape, and yes, you can watch it (link below). This is not a-typical in this facility, the only one in the US and maybe the world that openly admits to electric shock as punishment (not to be confused with ECT). Don't believe me?

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/...

Watch the Video that leaked here (clip within the Fox News affiliate's report):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v... 

Other examples of abusive "schools" include World Wide Association of Specialty Programs (Utah-based with International and States-based facilities), that among countless other things (rape, negligent behavior resulting in death, and so much more) locked kids in dog cages, tied spread eagle, while deprived of food and water, in one facility.

Current lawsuit with over 350 plantiffs: 

http://www.wturley.com/Recent-...

Photo of the dog-cages: http://s3-media2.ak.yelpcdn.co... handful of the abuses outlined in WWASP lawsuit:b. Unsanitary living conditions;c. Denial of adequate food;d. Denial of proper medical and dental care and treatment;e. Denial of an even minimally sufficient education;f. Exposure to extreme (hot and cold) temperatures for long periods of time;g. Forced physical exercise beyond their physical capacity;h. Kicked, beaten, thrown and slammed to the ground;i. Bound and tied by hands and/or feet;j. Chained and locked in dog cages;k. Forced to lie in, or wear, urine and feces as one method of punishment;l. Forced to clean and scrub toilets and floors with their toothbrush;m.Forced to sleep on cold concrete floors, boxspring, or plywood used as a bed with     no bedding or linens or with just a tattered and torn sleeping bag;n. Forced to carry heavy bags of sand around their neck or logs throughout the dayover many days;o. Forced to eat their own vomit;p. Sexual abuse, which included forced sexual relations and acts of fondling andmasturbation performed on them;q. Emotional abuse by subjecting student Plaintiffs to near-total parental and societalisolation.  Personal visits, correspondence, and telephone calls were eitherforbidden or discouraged; r. Because of the near-total isolation from the outside world and lack of education,many student Plaintiffs were totally unequipped to enter outside society;

This behavior is not unusual. It is not rare. 

FamilyT
FamilyT

Corporal punishment in schools  is alive and well, allowed and often encouraged  in nineteen U.S. states.  That statistic is not three and a half years old, it's TODAY'S statistic, Jen Cord. Those nineteen states, mostly in the South, allow school personnel to hit schoolkids, most of the time with paddles, with virtual impunity.

I cannot abide anyone who  supports such inhumane behavior and child abuse.

Belisarius85
Belisarius85

A couple of extreme examples do not make a case against discipline. The perpetrators in these examples clearly went far, far overboard and should be punished.

That being said, if we are afraid to punish children in school for repeated bad behavior, it will ruin all of the children's lessons. If you want to try some of your so-called "positive" disciplining techniques, at least remove the trouble child from the class room so they cannot disrupt everyone else's learning.

If children are repeatedly disrupted, permanently remove the child from the classroom and hold the parent responsible.

KidsRpeople2
KidsRpeople2

See shocking brutally violet injuries to U.S. Schoolchildren K-12 iflicted by school employees, mandatory child abuse reporters, by hitting them with thick wooden paddles to inflict pain as punishment for minor infractions, known as School Corporal Punishment, Illegal in Schools in 31 U.S. States at YouTube Video Trailer for Documentary Movie "The Board of Education" by Jared Abrams.  Federal Bill H.R. 3027 "The Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act" is due to expire again in U.S. Education Committee this December.  Cost to Abolish $0

Janice
Janice

How absolutely disgusting this is. While I believe these are not every day or ordinary events, I hope these perpetrators are punished.Perhaps they need to experience what they have so readily dished out on helpless children.

CarB1
CarB1

The problem is that there is very little legislation or board policies to protect children within schools from what is typically considered abusive outside of schools, especially when it comes to special education.  Parents need to be notified what discipline was used, each time it is used.  That should be in all the policies and state law.  People are likely trained in how to use restraints, but not trained in what the physical, mental, and emotional dangers are when they are used.  With that many extreme cases reported cases by the GAO, how many more go unreported because many children did not or cannot communicate sufficiently?

formerlyjamesm
formerlyjamesm

This is ridiculous.  Isolated cases of criminal behavior are presented as standard procedure in public schools.  I know better.  This should be edited and placed in the crime section, not here.  Again, ridiculous, absurd, nonsense.

Jen Cord
Jen Cord

This article takes a very narrow view of discipline and highlights two extreme cases, both of which were abusive and, in any school system I am aware of, be against board  policy and state law.  Many school districts are adopting programs to help prevent discipline issues from starting.  We use "Responsive Classrooms" in my school district. Before publishing an article with research that is 3+ years old, you should research what is being done today to rectify problems in the past.  That way, instead of leaving the article in a doomed, dramatic fashion, you could accurately state was is being done in 2012.  

SSGjughead
SSGjughead

I didn't read the article and I"ll go ahead and make my statement. They need their AZZEs beaten daily, if needed. That's the way it was when I went to school. A stranger was subject to make an "on the spot" correction if you got out of line. Children "should be seen and not heard," the principal would give you a few strokes, then mom, then dad would tear you up. When one realizes that everyone around him or her is liable correct them, they control themselves. We seldom got out of line, though every truck in the student parking lot had a shotgun, rifle or pistol in it no one was shot, we didn't think evil back in those days, evil is new. Children should fear authority, this breeds respect. Or, you could listen to Liberal's who will tell you that children are people too and should be seen and heard, which is what got us here today. Who cares what they think our job is to fill their heads with common sense and respect, which is lacking these days, everywhere.