Connecticut public schools are far too quick to restrain or isolate unruly children against their will, leaving hundreds with injuries and many others with unmet educational needs, a state report released last week found.
The report cited "significant concern" that schools are overusing restraints and so-called seclusion, particularly on kids with emotional or intellectual disabilities. Over the past three years, Connecticut has recorded more than 90,000 instances of restraint and seclusion in public schools and more than 1,300 injuries – at least two dozen of them serious.
The report found one child was restrained more than 700 times over the course of a year.
"The numbers are staggering," Mickey Kramer, the Associate Child Advocate for Connecticut and one of the authors of the report, told ProPublica. "We realize that this is a pervasive, widespread problem."
The report, which explored the cases of 70 students, described a 9-year-old student with autism who was placed in seclusion after refusing to say "hello" to a visitor and a 4-year-old boy with a developmental delay who was restrained after throwing puzzle pieces on the floor and across the room. The younger boy's school plan said he could be shackled to an orthopedic chair that is not supposed to be used for restraints.
And one fourth grader with autism was repeatedly secluded behind closed doors despite making repeated suicidal gestures while there, including wrapping items such as a sock, shoelace and coat around his neck and stating "I want to die." In 2004, a 13-year-old Georgia boy died after hanging himself while in seclusion.
Excessive use of restraint and seclusion goes far beyond Connecticut schools. An investigation last year by ProPublica and NPR based on government data showed the practices were used at least 267,000 times nationwide in just one school year.
The actual number of incidents is almost certainly much higher. Several of the nation's largest school districts do not report the actual number of restraints to authorities despite the count being mandated by law.
Children with physical, emotional, or intellectual disabilities comprise nearly three-quarters of the total number of reported restraints. Hundreds of children are injured each year during restraints and at least 20 have died as a result.
In 2012, Connecticut legislators required schools to record and detail each instance of restraint and seclusion.
But last week's report, by Connecticut's Office of the Child Advocate, found that many schools are not following the law, and are often providing insufficient reasons for the intervention and otherwise failing to adequately document them.
"The lack of specific documentation is a critical finding," said the report.
The report also said Connecticut's Department of Education does not have enough resources to monitor schools' compliance.
Restraints aside, the watchdog agency also took issue with the spaces used for seclusion, which often include storage and utility closets as well other "cell-like" spaces.
In response to the report, the department agreed that more needs to be done. "We are grateful for the Child Advocate's attention to this issue," said Kelly Donnelly, spokeswoman for Connecticut's State Department of Education. "We share the Child Advocate's concerns and would like to see the numbers reduced, as well."
There is consensus among experts that pinning children down or isolating them in small rooms involuntarily are ineffective ways to manage the behavior of students, particularly those with special needs. These types of interventions can often be traumatic for children, intensifying behavioral challenges in the long run.
"Most of these children have no idea what is expected of them," said Barb Trader, the executive director of TASH, a disability advocacy organization. "They are restrained or secluded and they are clueless to what is happening."
Alternatives to restraints exist. The report says that programs around the country have reduced restraints and seclusions as well as problem behavior using other strategies to calm students.
In 2012, Connecticut founded an interagency taskforce committed to reducing restraint and seclusion in schools. Connecticut state law prohibits restraints, unless used in "response to an emergency." However, the report found that the interpretation of what constitutes an "emergency" varies from school to school.
Seclusions are also allowed in Connecticut in emergencies or as part of a child's behavioral plan. In contrast to some states, Connecticut permits secluding children in locked rooms, and children can be secluded until they have "composed" themselves, which can sometimes last more than an hour.
The report outlined 14 recommendations for reducing the number of restraints and seclusions across the state. It called for increased staff training on how to prevent the need for restraints and recommended monthly school-wide reviews of restraint data to assess progress. The report also called for limiting the use of mechanical restraints and prohibiting the prone or facedown restraint technique.