He was pinned to the ground by a staff member who ignored him
Editor’s note: This article contains descriptions of many accounts of restraint deaths. Reader discretion advised.
In 1997, twelve-year-old Robert Rollins became upset when he couldn’t find his teddy bear. He was pinned to the ground by a staff member, who ignored the “barking” noises Robert was making until he became calm and limp. The staff went to deal with another student and returned to find him dead.
He was not the first. He was far from the last.
Only 11 months later, eleven-year-old Andrew McClain would die in the same hold – a hold which all of the staff were trained to perform and used on the children daily. A hold which the coroner found was performed correctly.
Over twenty years later, the Devereaux Foundation, which ran and still runs the school where Robert Rollins died, still trains its staff in how to restrain children correctly.
The hold which killed Robert, Andrew, and many more children, is widely known to be deadly. At the time those children died, such restraint was already banned in senior care homes.
Schools, residential settings, and other facilities, however, do not fall under those regulations.
In October 1998, The Hartford Courant released HUNDREDS OF THE NATION’S MOST VULNERABLE HAVE BEEN KILLED BY THE SYSTEM INTENDED TO CARE FOR THEM. They exposed the plight and abuse of children across America, setting the scene for media coverage that continues to this day in 2021.
We have known for a long time that pinning someone face-down on the floor can suffocate them. It is not the only restraint that can turn deadly.
The act of struggling and the feelings of panic, originating from being restrained or secluded, sometimes stresses the heart to the point where it just stops. Overwhelming metabolic acidosis from intense struggle. Thromboembolism. Rhabdomyolysis with subsequent renal failure. Blunt trauma to the chest. Malignant catecholamine-induced cardiac dysrhythmias. Respiratory arrest. Death by aspiration. These are some of the medical complications caused by restraint.
The holds were “correct.” The death was “accidental.”
But if we know something is deadly, and we do it anyway, is it accidental? If someone drives drunk and kills a child, it is accidental. Should we treat it that way?
Whenever a teacher or caregiver murders a child in their care, the world stops for a moment in disgust and horror. Only for a moment. The death of a child in a school or care facility seems to catch the world’s attention for a fleeting moment before it is forgotten and dies away into more inaction. There are too many children killed from restraint in schools and facilities for us to be able to share all of their stories.
Too Many Children Killed from Restraint to Share all of their Stories
That is a harrowing statement to make.
Restraint and seclusion did not originate in schools. The practices started in psychiatric facilities and then made their way into classrooms and facilities looking after children.
As these practices continue, we have seen two more deaths in America recently.
Max Benson was taken from us all in November 2018 due to deadly restraint practices. Three teachers pinned Max Benson to the floor in a prone restraint for 105 minutes, which led to his death. A vigil on the one-year anniversary in November 2019 introduced the hashtag #ShineOnMax, which became a unifying and powerful movement of solidarity in valuing autistic lives. However, the pain is still fresh as new details emerge. Just this month in El Dorado County, California, new ambulance records were released to the court for the trial of those teachers.
The passing of Max was followed by the death of Cornelius Frederick on April 29, 2020. Cornelius Frederick’s case was published by NeuroClastic, penned by C.L. Lynch, titled Sixteen-year-old Killed by Restraint: It’s Time for Connection Over Control.
While telling of the events that led to the death of Cornelius, Lynch highlights the story of Centennial School in Bethlehem, PA (which is also featured in the ABC deadly discipline segment on ABC News). Under the leadership of headteacher Michael George at the Centennial School, there is no need for restraint and seclusion rooms. He is quoted:
“In fact, restraint and seclusion have the opposite effect, causing more aggression.”
Mr. George expands on his thoughts and approach in a piece released by Lehigh University in January 2015, titled Restraint and Seclusion Debate.
Johnathan King was 13 when he died while being held in a seclusion room at a Georgia school. Don King, Johnathan’s father, is seen in a CNN interview describing the traumatic death of his son in a seclusion room. The room was actually a concrete cell with a glass window in the door which had been covered in paper. Johnathan’s mother Tina can be heard crying in the background.
In 2006 Joey Aletriz, a 16-year-old boy, died after being restrained at SummitQuest Academy in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The initial coroner report stated:
“The autopsy showed evidence of a traumatic injury to the left side of the teen’s head, chest compression, lesions inside his shoulders, and bleeding near his shoulder blade, in his ribs and in his spinal area… also had bite marks on his lips and tongue and stomach material in his nose, also indicators that he suffocated.”
The Lancaster County District Attorney Donald Totaro then released a different statement:
“An autopsy showed that Giovanni ”Joey” Aletriz, 16, had an undiagnosed heart condition that could have contributed to his death on Feb. 4 while being restrained at the SummitQuest Academy.”
Joey was the second death at SummitQuest in under two months. James White, 17, died in December of that year in what the Lancaster County coroner determined was natural causes. No charges were brought in Joey’s death. There was no justice for him, and his family was left to mourn him being violently taken from this earth. Joey’s death was the culmination of a chain of events that started over a skateboard.
Corey Foster died in 2012 at 16 years old. He was restrained by four men at a school in New York for not leaving the school gym. His last words were “I can’t breathe”, a sentence now spoken around the world at marches of solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement after the passing of George Floyd in 2020. Corey was also African-American.
The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights has documented that people of color are disproportionately targeted in the use of restraint and seclusion alongside peers with disabilities. OCR released its data in numerous reports in 2016 and 2018, revised in 2019, with the most recent report in 2020.
Corey’s mother, Sheila Foster, spoke out about the brutal treatment and death of her son to ABC News Nightline and Anderson Cooper on his show Anderson Live, among other media outlets. She also started a petition to raise awareness of Corey’s passing and the practices being used in schools across the USA.
Sheila became a part of the movement behind the Keeping All Students Safe Act (KASSA), which is still in legislative limbo. Corey’s family has yet to find justice for his death.
Lawsuits and Legislation in the United States
In many instances, lawsuits are attempted to seek justice for those killed, but in most cases no one is held accountable.
Rare exceptions include Jonathan Carey, who died February 15, 2007. The determination of his parents to see justice served and push for change resulted in New York State Senate hearings and a 244-page report into his death. The New York Inspector General released its report titled A Critical Examination of State Agency Investigations into Allegations of Abuse of Jonathan Carey.
His killer, Edwin Tirado, was sentenced to the maximum allowed under state law. He attempted parole in 2012, which was denied; it was reported by The Daily Gazette with the headline Parole denied for autistic boy’s killer.
The state went on to award a $5million dollar payout to the family to end the civil suits that were underway. Of course, no amount of money can compensate for the death of a child.
Did the passing of yet another innocent child create alliances between lawmakers joining together internationally for the safety of our children? Were there announcements of robust federal action to protect ALL children in America or globally?
The answer is no.
The deaths, injuries, and psychological harm continue today, in 2021.
There are states that during this time have put legislation in place, stemming from the dedicated work of advocates across the USA. The state regulations vary widely, as there is no federal law in place to corral them.
Jessica Butler released her 135 page report How Safe is the School House through the Autism National Committee (AutCom) in 2019. The release was a follow-up to her report of the same title that was released in 2015. The 2015 report cites that just 2 states had banned the use of seclusion rooms, and only 20 states had meaningful laws. A few states had weak laws, a few protected against one practice and not the other, some had suggested guidance, and others had nothing at all.
The updated report of 2019 reveals the hard work and determination of advocates to shine a light and create change. Butler’s 2019 report shows 30 states providing meaningful protections. The year 2020 saw additional legislation passed in other states.
However, these protections are not enough. Children continue to die or suffer physical, emotional, and psychological injuries to this day. No one can say that our children are being adequately protected.
For a moment in 2019, it seemed that at long last meaningful worldwide change might occur when the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica released the first of a number of articles, titled The Quiet Room, highlighting the restraint and seclusion abuse of children in Illinois.
Fluffy names by different school districts like “calm down rooms” and “reflection areas” are all codenames for the imprisonment of children. The kids are locked in these rooms for their “behaviors”, without any real attempt to understand that in most cases it is distress being shown by a child with a disability or one in trauma.
A team of journalists went through thousands of documents and spoke to children and their families, children who had been subjected to the walls of terror known as the seclusion cell. These journalists from Chicago Tribune and ProPublica would go on to be awarded the Fred M. Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Education reporting by The Education Writers Association, the top prize in its National Awards for Education Reporting.
The articles helped give lawmakers traction in Illinois to rise up and end the abuse. As the days and weeks went by, the Governor called for a ban of seclusion rooms and the end of prone restraint. ICARS was approached by Kyle Hillman of The National Association of Social Workers, who were pushing for change and an end to the abuse. We were asked to provide what we had at hand to back up the argument that restraint and seclusion was not a “therapeutic” practice.
ICARS and other advocates internationally were so full of promise that this movement, and the hearings that came from it, would make a significant change. Our hopes were also heightened while working with The British Association Of Social workers in Northern Ireland as they released their own report on the use of restraint and seclusion.
We really believed change was on the horizon. Internationally, more and more organizations were getting on board.
The children of Illinois would be children who create change.
Follow the Money to Find the People Who Profit from Abuse
The Governor’s declaration was overturned, with Illinois under pressure from teacher’s unions, school administrators, and school boards. The schools continue to lock up children for merely ripping pieces of paper, children who are crying for their parents and pleading to be let out. Regardless of the media exposure and outcry from the public and lawmakers alike, the abuse continues, setting the stage for another death to occur.
Even children who do not have restraint and seclusion directly used against them are deeply impacted by witnessing the torture of their peers. They hear the screams. They see the bruises.
Your tax dollars go to states, counties, or councils that pay teachers. The teachers pay dues for unions and other professional bodies. Those organizations then lobby and donate to your legal representatives, or even issue threats that members will vote for their political opponent in the next election.
These measures have found many lawmakers willing to side with them to stop the laws that could protect our most vulnerable. It is tax-funded abuse of children.
Large companies that specialize in training of the correct ways to restrain students make millions of dollars from schools and facilities, and they are very determined to keep their revenue streams going. Their services are framed as protection for teachers and caregivers.
This is not a system that works for teachers either. As NPR reported, teachers are sustaining injuries from restraint and seclusion policies in schools and are deeply affected.
Common sense would dictate that if something is not working for either the teachers or the kids, then a new formula and approach would be needed.
Advocates have often succeeded in finding lawmakers who agree that restraint and seclusion needs to end. But it is all seemingly in vain, as they are shut down by teachers’ unions and an industry that makes millions on restraining, secluding, injuring, and killing your children. With such reach, these organizations feed the school-to-prison pipeline so others can continue profiting from imprisoning the vulnerable even after they age out of school.
American Companies Exposed Making Profits in the U.K. from Imprisoning Youth
In 2019, Ian Birrell, a U.K. journalist, exposed American companies profiting from imprisoning young children with learning disabilities in the U.K. They were paid by the National Health Service (NHS). He writes in his article released by The Daily Mail in December 2019:
“Cygnet has almost doubled the package handed to its highest-paid director – most likely to be chief executive Tony Romero – from £508,000 to £953,000, according to its latest accounts.
“A private mental health firm has been accused of ‘disgraceful’ behaviour in handing huge pay rises to top executives despite safety failings, including the killing of one patient and the preventable suicide of another.
“Cygnet has almost doubled the package handed to its highest-paid director – most likely to be chief executive Tony Romero – from £508,000 to £953,000, according to its latest accounts.
“The firm also saw ten staff arrested in May after an undercover BBC documentary, Panorama: Hospital Undercover Abuse Scandal, at Whorlton Hall in County Durham exposed cruelty and abuse towards people with autism and learning disabilities. The 17-bed hospital was later closed.
“The firm’s operating profits surged from £40 million in 2017 to £45 million last year, assisted by the takeover of a 25-unit rival. Directors also cashed-in significant share options with Universal Health Services, Cygnet’s parent company based in Pennsylvania.”
Who Decides Where to Spend a School’s Money? School Administrators.
The school systems and facilities of yesterday and today will be looked at as the next Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. Future generations will be shocked, and rightly full of disgust at us, that in 2021 we still had not banned the exploitation of restraint and seclusion. They will wonder why we did not demand humane treatment when educating and looking after all children in schools and facilities.
The use of dangerous restraints is the cause of many deaths and too many physical and psychological injuries to count. Seclusion room deaths are not something often seen; however, the trauma of this draconian practice leaves children mentally scarred, with many suffering from lifelong PTSD.
In United States legislative language, the term restraint refers to:
“Any manual method, physical or mechanical device, material, or equipment . . . that he or she cannot easily remove that restricts freedom of movement or normal access to one’s body.”
These or similar definitions are put into the handbooks of school systems and facilities in which injuries and deaths occur. The United States Government Accountability Office exposed school officials using mechanical restraints, such as gagging students with duct tape or binding them to chairs.
In 2012 in the ABC News special titled Deadly Discipline, Daniel Domenech, Executive Director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), states that some teachers need more training and defends the use of restraints and seclusion. When pressed by the reporter if he thought those practices were barbaric, Domenech responded:
“Is it? Well listen, then I’m a barbarian”.
In 2012, the year their executive director openly referred to himself as a barbarian, the AASA published Keeping Schools Safe: How Seclusion and Restraint Protects Students and School Personnel
The introduction is lengthy, but it opens with:
“AASA has long opposed the prohibition of seclusion and restraint in public schools. We believe the use of seclusion and restraint has enabled many students with serious emotional or behavioural conditions to be educated not only within our public schools but also in the least restrictive and safest environments possible.
“Some of the approximately 4.7 million school personnel working in our public schools are not perfect. The unfortunate reality is that they make a variety of mistakes, sometimes intentionally, that can hurt children. However, AASA does not support federal policies built around the few wrongful individuals who choose to disobey school policies, state regulations, or state and federal criminal laws. Because circumstances, where seclusion and restraint are used inappropriately, are the vast exception to the rule, we advocate for policies that support the 99 per cent of school personnel that use seclusion and restraint safely, responsibly and only when circumstances truly demand their application.”
Teachers on the frontline are put into training programs spanning only a few hours or a couple of days to receive certification. They are then set loose in classrooms and are provided with yearly refreshers – again, only a couple of hours or days long.
While there are many amazing teachers, there are many who are underqualified, poorly trained, and seem oblivious to the fact that they are the ones creating a challenging environment and creating distressed behavior.
The current schools and systems do not work, and they cannot work while coercive practices are in place, punishing children who in many cases are having a manifestation of disability or trauma.
In many instances, these are manifestations which the school environment has created from a lack of understanding or engagement with the communities they harm. Autistic and disabled adults who want to, and are able to, enter the educational system could advise teachers and administrators. These advocates would help school staff create environments that accommodate a child’s needs and reduce, if not eliminate, the causes of distress that see these children injured and killed.
Environments that are a cycle of abuse which they themselves deny are problematic. Children are being denied a duty of care and are educated in a system of abuse that undermines their right to respect and dignity.
The AASA website shows that they receive massive contributions from Walmart to fund the Health and Hunger Alternative School Breakfast program. Kudos to Walmart for funding this important incentive for America’s children. However, is Walmart aware they are supporting an organization that is driven to stop legislation that would end child abuse and deaths in schools?
While reading through the 2012 report published by AASA, you might think to yourself that things should have changed by now. You would be dismayed to find that nothing has changed. The organization is still under the leadership of Daniel Domenech, and the organization still has considerable power over procedures in our schools. The AASA 2020 legislative agenda, in the section titled “Strengthen District Operations”, makes it clear that nothing has changed:
“Oppose additional mandates on districts related to seclusion and restraint.”
These were also listed as legislative agendas in 2019 and 2018. This is an agenda that is deeply rooted within the AASA.
Here we are in 2021, where a self-proclaimed barbarian is still leading the AASA, which is affiliated with 49 state administrators and the Canadian Association Of School System Administrators (CASSA).
With their continued efforts to stop state and federal protections, Domenech and the AASA show a clear disregard for the safety, wellbeing, and educational environments of students. These are students with disabilities and ethnic minorities who are already disproportionately subjected to unsafe environments.
Remember that the people making these decisions, from teachers up to superintendents, are not medical professionals. The “Ph.D.” and other honorifics following some of their names do not confer or infer medical knowledge.
Many children in our schools have not only an intellectual disability but medical issues that complicate the blanket approach that restraint is ok. Take a look through your school district’s school budget and see how much is being spent on retaining legal services for special needs.
They perform the restraints and let the lawyers take care of any mistakes, injuries, or deaths. This means more taxpayer money being spent. They have large insurance coverages in case of accidents where they can be found liable, which are paid for by taxpayers. You pay for the abuse and you pay for getting the offenders off. You pay for everything.
If you were to hold your child to the ground, restrained them, and suffocated them, you would be charged with murder. If you locked your child in a room with no escape, that is called child abuse. If you restrained your child and left physical injuries… again, you would be charged with child abuse, and rightly so.
Schools and care facilities however are allowed to do it.
Human Rights Efforts in North America Reveal Hypocrisy
America is a country that throws around its might internationally, issuing sanctions, stepping into conflicts, and exposing human rights abuses around the globe. The country is a little slower to extend that same level of outrage and superpower might for the children of its own great states. America is the only country that has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Those who pushed back on the treaty cited that it would limit U.S. sovereignty and would interfere in family life.
Yes, you read that right: the United States stands alone as not having ratified the UNCRC, which would provide protections for our children. Would it matter if this was ratified here in the USA? We think so. We believe that restraint and seclusion is a violation of Article 16 of the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT).
Here’s why: Advocates in the U.K. successfully lobbied by citing the UNCRC treaty. They worked with human rights organizations to see the first human rights-based guidance for the use of restraint and seclusion international written in Scotland.
In July 2008, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment Mr. Manfred Novak released his report into the use of restraint and seclusion, which can be downloaded here. His summary states in part:
“The Special Rapporteur draws the attention of the General Assembly to the situation of persons with disabilities, who are frequently subjected to neglect, severe forms of restraint and seclusion, as well as physical, mental and sexual violence. He is concerned that such practices, perpetrated in public institutions, as well as in the private sphere, remain invisible and are not recognized as torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The recent entry into force of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol provides a timely opportunity to review the anti-torture framework in relation to persons with disabilities. By reframing violence and abuse perpetrated against persons with disabilities as torture or a form of ill-treatment, victims and advocates can be afforded stronger legal protection and redress for violation of human rights.”
This was followed up in 2015 when the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment Juan E. Méndez released his submission to the twenty-eighth session of the Human Rights Council, listed as “Agenda item 3. Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development.”
In 2016, Amnesty International published its release UN COMMITTEE ON THE RIGHTS OF PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES OBSERVATIONS ON THE DRAFT
RESTRAINT, SECLUSION, AND AVERSIVE INTERVENTIONS (PARAGRAPH 50)
“Amnesty International is concerned that, even in States with inclusive education policies, the use of restraint, seclusion, and aversive interventions undermines efforts to realize the protections enshrined in article. In Canada, for example, a 2013 investigation revealed the use of restraint and seclusion in schools, reporting that children with disabilities were being kept in small spaces—including closets and stairwells—for up to three hours when judged to be disruptive. Nearly half of all students surveyed as part of the investigation reported that physical injury or obvious signs of pain occurred during restraint, and more than three quarters reported emotional trauma.
“Amnesty International recommends that States prohibit the use of restraints, seclusion, and aversive interventions as part of their inclusive education policies. The committee should also emphasize the use of positive behavior supports developed within a comprehensive, professionally-developed plan of behavioral accommodations and interventions.”
It became abundantly clear that the human rights of children in the United States were not going to be upheld, regardless of how many reports were released. They would be cited by advocates, but largely ignored.
The Amnesty report submitted to the UN was compiled from reports that included Stop Hurting Kids Report of 2013 released by Inclusion BC in Canada. May 2018 saw Inclusion BC publish a follow-up report Stop Hurting Kids Report II. It opened with:
“Five years after our report on the widespread abuse of restraint and seclusion in BC schools, a follow-up investigation shows little has changed. New provincial guidelines to regulate student restraint and seclusion have been largely ignored. Families and others across the province continue to report disturbing incidents and patterns of conduct, inadequate staff training and support, and a systemic lack of oversight and accountability.”
Legal Frameworks Already Exist to Protect the Children of Canada
In September 2015, an autistic boy was stripped naked and locked in an isolation room at the Clover Bar School in Sherwood Park, Alberta. His family filed a lawsuit against the province and other defendants, which culminated in Alberta’s order to ban the use of seclusion rooms in early 2019.
With the election of a different governing party in the summer of 2019, the order was reversed – three days before it was set to go into effect. Since the order was rescinded, the family lost their appeal. There has still been no justice for their son.
Education systems in Canada are governed by the individual provinces and territories, with the exception of the education of Indigenous children and youth living on reserves. Policies and practices of seclusion and restraint vary widely.
In 2015, after years of advocates from Inclusion BC raising the alarm, British Columbia finally established policy guidelines. By 2018, they had ensured that all school districts would have their own policy based on the guidelines. This was fulfilled by the end of 2019.
However, seclusion and restraint are still allowed under these guidelines.
There is no accountability included in the guidelines. There is no monitoring of the use of seclusion or restraint. Parents would not know for how long, or even if, their child has been secluded. Incidents where restraints are used are insufficiently reported. No one is monitoring the long-term effects of these practices on children.
According to the most recent data from the BCEdAccess Exclusion Tracker, seclusion and restraint are still being used against children in BC schools, and children are being harmed and traumatized much like in the United States. Just over 5% of respondents to the tracker for the current school year are reporting that seclusion and/or restraint was used. In October 2018, by comparison, 4% of respondents had reported the same.
Because nothing has substantially changed, we expect to see a “Stop Hurting Kids III” report in the future from Inclusion BC, sadly.
In 2019, legislation was passed in Ontario that is similar to the guidelines in British Columbia. It calls for limiting the use of seclusion and restraint, but it also comes with the same limitations of no accountability or monitoring.
High-profile cases of abuses in schools in Ontario include Christian Thorndyke’s story, personally recounted in September 2014 by Global News:
“I was starting to have blow ups in class and the teaching assistant would lock me in a room with a chair in front of it so I would not be able to get out,” Christian said. “He would also record me on his phone which would escalate me even more and I would eventually pee myself. He yelled at me, gave me mop and told me to clean it up.”
Toronto Life published a follow-up to Thorndyke’s story in December 2016 under the headline of The Autism Wars. More recently, the University of Manitoba’s Nadine Bartlett and Taylor F. Ellis published their scholarly article titled Interrogating Sanctioned Violence: A Survey of Parents/Guardians of Children with Disabilities about Restraint and Seclusion in Manitoba’s Schools. The abstract reads in part:
“Parents/guardians reported a high frequency of the use of restraint and seclusion, limited consent to the use of these practices, and an absence of written notification that they had occurred. Of great concern, some parents reported that their child was subjected to mechanical restraint and practices known to have a higher risk of causing death (e.g. supine and prone holds, being left in rooms that were locked from the outside etc.). A majority of parents reported their child had suffered trauma, and signs of physical injury also were noted. The results of this study indicate that restraint and seclusion are being misused as behaviour management techniques, especially with students with disabilities. These practices contravene Canada’s commitment to international standards regarding the rights of children and youth with disabilities, and change is required.”
Canada has responsibilities under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), and they are not being fulfilled. It’s especially challenging to address this because of the disparate nature of education in Canada. The UN Special Rapporteur who visited in 2016 had scathing remarks about the state of inclusive education in Canada, yet the country has taken no steps nationally to address this.
Canada has far greater protections for people under medical care than it does for children and youth in schools. Staff are well-protected through worker safety legislation and union contracts, but children have no union and no safety protections in their places of education.
To this day, Canadians are still fighting to get a robust legal framework in place to protect the children of their country. BCEdAccess, which is cited in the Amnesty international report, among other advocacy groups, have been fighting for protections for years.
Tracy Humphreys, CEO of BCEdAccess, recently issued a statement putting their work in perspective:
“As a membership organization of Inclusion BC, we are parents and guardians of children and youth with disabilities. BCEdAccess was proud to be cited in the Amnesty international report and we’re proud members of ICARS with a goal of putting a stop to these human rights abuses and seeking justice for the children and youth traumatized by these practices.”
This is not just one country; this is all countries; this is a global structure of abuse against the most vulnerable within our communities. A structure worth millions of dollars to those who peddle the training programs that are used.
Legal Frameworks Already Exist to Protect the Children of the United States
The Keeping All Students Safe Act (KASSA) has been bouncing around Congress since 2009.
In November 2020 while on the campaign trail, Joe Biden, then the Democratic nominee for President, announced that under his administration he would support KASSA, a bill that would put in place federal protections for children to protect them against the abuse of restraint and seclusion.
Under his plan for Full Participation and Equality for People with Disabilities, it states:
“Address the disparities in school discipline, including suspension, expulsion, and segregation. Biden will fully implement the special education significant disproportionality regulation that the Obama-Biden Administration put in place and support the passage of the Keeping All Students Safe Act, which will end the use of seclusion and prevent and decrease the use of physical restraints in schools.”
For many, this will have been the first time hearing of the act. However, this is a bill that has traveled around Congress for over a decade. It has been cited in news stories and by advocacy groups since its inception in 2009.
Restraint and seclusion advocacy in America has been a long, winding road. The first significant media attention came in the early 2000’s when advocates united together, forming groups such as Families Against Restraint and Seclusion (FARS). FARS, under the direction of Phylis Musumeci, partnered with other advocates such as Anna Moore (ICARS), Jean Bowden (ICARS), and Sheila Foster (mother of Corey Foster, whose last words were “I can’t breathe”). These are the people who brought KASSA to Congress initially, which seemed impossible to achieve at the time.
These parents went door to door, spoke to the media, and never stopped pushing, ultimately gaining the attention of federal lawmakers. Rep. George Miller (D-CA) joined with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) to enter what is now called the Keeping All Students Safe Act to Congress on December 9, 2009.
The companion bill was entered into the Senate by Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) under its original name Preventing Harmful Restraint and Seclusion in Schools Act. On March 3, 2010, the bill passed the House of Representatives, 262-153. 238 Democrats and 24 Republicans voted in favor. It did not pass the Senate, and it went into limbo.
KASSA was seen again in 2011 when Rep. George Miller (D-CA) partnered with Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) to reintroduce the bill. Rep. Miller stated his reasons for re-entering the bill:
“In 2009, the Government Accountability Office told our committee of the shocking wave of abuse by untrained school staff who were misusing emergency interventions. Most of these victims were children with disabilities. Some were 3 and 4 years old. In some cases, children died. Restraint and seclusion should be used only as a last resort and by trained professionals, but the GAO found that was not the case. A media report out yesterday highlights that these horrific abuses continued through this past year. In Chicago, a 4-year-old boy’s wrists were taped together with painter’s tape and then duct tape because he refused to take a nap and he didn’t wash his hands.”
Senator Tom Harkin stated in the Congressional Record:
“I am pleased to introduce today the Keeping All Students Safe Act. This important legislation will protect school children against ineffective harmful and life-threatening seclusion and restraint practices.
“The G.A.O. study also revealed that restraint and seclusion-related fatalities and injuries most often involve children with disabilities. This vulnerable population must especially be protected from this type of abuse, and this legislation seeks to do just that.
“Although the act does allow for the use of restraint in emergency situations to prevent serious bodily injury to the student, other students in the classroom, or staff, it also requires staff to be trained and certified by a State-approved crisis intervention training program as to how to approach these types of emergency situations. This will help to ensure that in the rare instances where restraint is necessary to prevent serious bodily injury, all techniques will be administered appropriately and unnecessary injury can be avoided.”
Again, the bill did not get enough votes. It was passed to a committee and lost steam, only to be reborn in late 2018 by a group of Democratic lawmakers.
Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) joined with Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), and Rep. Bobby Scottt (D-VA) to bring the Keeping All Students Safe Act to passage. In his November 2018 press release, he states:
“It’s barbaric for schools to confine students alone in locked rooms, or to use abusive methods to restrain little children. Treating school kids this way should not be tolerated in America. Period. Our bill would establish strong federal standards to keep students safe, while giving school staff alternatives to respond to challenging situations in the right way. I look forward to working with students and advocates to advance this important piece of legislation.”
Most of the teachers deciding to use restraint in a classroom, or those that are called as part of a response team, are not medical professionals. In some schools, the gym teacher is part of the response team, should it be deemed a restraint is needed.
These people will not have read the medical data and Individual Education Profile (IEP) of each child they restrain. What about the children with brittle bone disease? What about those with respiratory or cardiac issues?
The plethora of documentation and reports to back up this fight internationally over the decades is vast.
Legal Frameworks Already Exist in the United Kingdom
While we are aghast at the treatment of children in the United States, the children of the U.K. and Ireland have also been abused by restraint and seclusion.
There is no mandatory requirement for schools to even report restraint and seclusion to parents. A decade ago, parent advocate Beth Morrison stepped forward to shine a light on her son being restrained in a school in Scotland. Her son suffered injuries that usually only appear on people who have died from restraint asphyxiation.
This was the start of nearly 10 years of petitioning the Scottish Government, while building a movement with parents, caregivers, and advocates across Scotland, the U.K., and other countries to legislate an end to the abuse. Beth’s collaborations led to the creation of her charity Positive & Active Behaviour Support Scotland (PABSS) and the founding with other international advocates of the parent-led campaigning group International Coalition Against Restraint and Seclusion (ICARS) in 2018.
There is no statutory guidance for the use of restraint and seclusion, and there is no legal requirement to report incidents. The children of the U.K. and other countries are extremely vulnerable, with no binding legislation that protects them in school settings.
Morrison’s call on behalf of families she was representing would eventually be heard by the Children & Young People’s Commissioner Scotland Tam Baille in 2010. However, it was not until the arrival of Bruce Adamson to the position in 2017 that the subject was taken seriously enough to garner action.
Morrison visited the United Nations in Geneva with Adamson and Hobbs to present findings on restraint and seclusion human rights violations within Scotland. Other children’s commissioners from within the U.K. attended. A representative from England was notably absent. Their report was titled “The Joint submission to the United Nations Committee Against Torture 66th session on the sixth Periodic Report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland by Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland Children and Young People’s Commissioners”.
In 2018, the Children & Young People’s Commissioner Scotland released No Safe Place, which was the first time Bruce Adamson used such investigative powers of his office granted by the Scottish Parliament. The report is a daunting account of the abuse happening to schoolchildren in Scotland. These were followed up by the release of “In Safe Hands” by Enable Scotland, headed by Beth Morrison.
October 2018 saw abuse of restraint and seclusion hit the headlines in Northern Ireland and the U.K. when parent Deirdre Shakespeare (co-founder of ICARS) stepped forward. She exposed the abuse and injuries her autistic son Harry encountered with mechanical restraints in school.
It was covered by Belfast Live and eventually boosted by The Independent and the BBC. Working alongside Morrison and other international advocates, Shakespeare lobbied the Northern Ireland Assembly for Harry’s Law to provide protections for the children.
At present, the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People has not produced any form of consultation or action like her counterparts in Scotland and Wales.
Bruce Adamson and Nick Hobbs added their names in support of the families, with Beth Morrison fighting for her Petition PE01548 to pass through the Scottish Government in November 2019:
With Children & Young People’s Commissioner Scotland Bruce Adamson, Scotland became the first country to introduce any human rights-based guidance on restraint and seclusion. While it is groundbreaking for the guidance to be human rights-based, what Scotland is currently devising is not statutory, which will not provide the protections Scottish children deserve.
While working with the Scottish Government, Morrison started a crowdfunding campaign on behalf of some of the represented families. She launched Judicial reviews with law firm Irwin Mitchell against the English and Welsh Governments.
In response, the U.K. Government released Reducing the need for restraint and restrictive intervention on June 27, 2019. While it was a response, it did little to actually address concerns over the practice as more families from across the U.K. came forward.
In July 2019 The Guardian Newspaper published ‘He was covered in bruises’: the vulnerable children being harmed in special schools. This again brought national attention to the plight of children who are harmed daily. It again highlighted the fight of parents and advocates to achieve justice and protection for their children.
In Northern Ireland, Shakespeare’s lobbying saw the first-ever restraint and seclusion motion in Stormont released as a private members motion. Months of work between Shakespeare and MLA Chris Lyttle finally garnered cross-party support. This was the beginning of creating a robust framework to protect the children of Northern Ireland.
A Private Members’ Motion of the Northern Ireland Assembly was issued with the title Restrictive Intervention and Seclusion of Children and Young People with Additional Needs:
“That this Assembly expresses concern at the lack of up to date standardised guidance from the Department of Education on the use of restrictive intervention and seclusion on children and young people with additional needs, including those with physical or learning disabilities; and calls on the Minister of Education to introduce, in partnership with teachers, parents and all other relevant stakeholders, up to date guidance on therapeutic-based positive behaviour strategies; and further calls on the Minister to fund mandatory training on this approach for all staff working directly with children and young people and mandatory recording and reporting of all incidents of restrictive intervention and seclusion.”
In October 2019, Children’s Commissioner for Wales Sally Holland tasked a restraint and seclusion consultation, which released Guidance on reducing restrictive practices in childcare, education, health and social care settings.
The guidance is not statutory and falls short of the robust protections need for the children of Wales.
October 2019 saw the NHS issue its Warning over face-down restraint of people with learning disabilities and autism, stating that learning disability patients are subjected to potentially fatal face-down restraint an average of 10 times a day.
Dan Scorer, Head of Policy & Public Affairs at the Royal Mencap Society, stated:
“Guidance set out by the Government clearly shows that restrictive interventions should only be used as a last resort. However, these figures suggest that it is routine. This is unacceptable and deeply shocking. The use of restrictive interventions, including holding people face down on the floor, can exacerbate any challenging behaviour displayed. The Government must take urgent action to put a stop to this domestic human rights scandal.”
Staff reported using restrictive measures almost 23,500 times over the eight-month period studied in the report.
Medical professionals understand the dangers and know that it is not right. Schools and care facilities do not seem to have the same issue. Schools and care facilities have the auto-response that it is used as a last resort. With such a high frequency of reports, we know it is not used as a last resort. In many cases it is used as the first resort.
December 2019 saw the media again tackling the subject of restraint and seclusion that had been appearing in the headlines. BBC Breakfast asked Morrison to appear on behalf of families. Deirdre Shakespeare’s son’s experience and other children’s stories were broadcast to the nation.
Reducing Restrictive Intervention of Children and Young People (RRISC) was released in February 2020 at the House of Lords. The report was released in partnership with the Challenging Behaviour Foundation, and it laid out data from 738 families that Morrison represented.
The families’ experiences and those of the children who had been brutally harmed, both physically and mentally from the use of restraint and seclusion in school settings, were affirmed. Advocates from across the U.K. attended, including Deirdre Shakespeare from Northern Ireland.
In that same month, Amnesty International, for the first time, recognized the work of advocates in the area of restraint and seclusion. The group highlighted the efforts of both Morrison and Shakespeare when it announced the Amnesty Brave Awards for 2020. The Scottish Parliament acknowledged Morrison and others in Early Day Motions.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission, in attendance at the House of Lords’ release of the RRISC report, published their own inquiry in February 2020. It delivered a series of recommendations for schools, the U.K. Government Department for Education and the Welsh Government.
As part of that inquiry in November 2020, PABSS and ICARS supported by Irwin Mitchell collected the lived experience of families across the UK to submit into evidence. It launched on Nov 7, 2020, for a 3-week period. Parents, advocates, and celebrities throughout the UK and internationally helped circulate the survey using social media.
275 brave families came forward and completed the in-depth survey that fell within the remit of the inquiry. Having reviewed and correlated all of the data, ICARS believes the evidence submitted on behalf of these families shows systematic abuses against children across the U.K., and it highlights the cruel and inhumane treatment they are subjected to daily.
James Betts is a solicitor at Irwin Mitchell LLP, acting for a group of children and families subjected to restraint and seclusion practices. Mr. Betts said:
“It is clear the problems we are seeing in the U.K. are not happening in isolation. There is a global pattern. We see similar stories in Manitoba, in the U.S.A., in Australia, across Europe. Our most vulnerable children are being failed on account of the lack of adequate legal safeguards, and the families I act for believe it is only a matter of time until a child with learning disabilities or autism dies in the U.K. due to restraint. More needs to be done, in the U.K. and internationally. It is encouraging this issue is receiving wider attention and that so many parents are speaking up. But until robust action is taken, the children and families I act for will not rest. They deserve answers, accountability and real change to protect others in future.”
The inquiry is set to release its findings in March 2021.
It is the first time in our awareness that any human rights organization has undertaken an inquiry with this level of lived experience testimony.
The International Movement to End Restraint and Seclusion will Continue Fighting for Change
The stories and events on the road to justice will be ongoing and ever-changing until lawmakers finally end the abuses of the most vulnerable people in society.
Parents, caregivers, and advocates who started this movement decades ago are the shoulders on which all of us who fight today stand.
Many parents still work behind the scenes fighting for change, while being scared to step forward publicly. They fear repercussions against their child and family from school districts, and they cannot afford the legal representation that is desperately needed to end the abuses taking place against children.
The history of this campaign to end the abuses of restraint and seclusion against children encompasses much more than what has been laid out here. To those we do not mention, we thank you. For the children who have been lost, we think and fight for you. For the children living with the injuries and lifelong trauma, know that your horrors will be told by all who fight for change across the globe.
We as global citizens have waited too long for change. Now is the time it must happen, and we must unite in moral outrage until it does.
As a young boy in California would have wanted, we need to adorn our Bad Guy Pants and make sure that no other child is made to #ShineOn because they were killed from a practice allowed at our children’s schools. Our childrens’ lives and futures are precious and must be protected.
- ICARS: The Time to End Restraint and Seclusion is Now - February 12, 2021
- My experience of restraint in a psychiatric hospital: This is not a love story - March 18, 2020
- Trending in the US: Calling the Police on Disabled Kids in Kindergarten - March 1, 2020