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Podcast: Restraints and Seclusion in Public Schools

(Illustration by Alberto Cairo, Special to ProPublica)

In public schools across the country, it’s perfectly legal to take students who act out and isolate them in confined spaces against their will or even physically pin them down, ProPublica’s Heather Vogell reports.

The little-known practice – which was used at least 267,000 times in the 2012 school year alone – has largely escaped federal regulation, even as other government-funded institutions like hospitals and psychiatric centers have faced increasing restrictions on using restraints and seclusion on children over the last decade.

“This has been left up to the states and the school districts themselves to regulate,” Vogell tells assistant managing editor Eric Umansky. “And although advocates have been pushing for more restrictions on the practices for the last few years, it’s still legal in most states to restrain kids for reasons other than an emergency where they’re going to hurt themselves or hurt someone else.”

In a recent survey, 1 in 5 superintendents and other school district leaders approved of using restraints or seclusion as a means of punishment for children, not to protect them, Vogell notes. And a majority of these kids have physical, emotional or intellectual disabilities – some are even nonverbal – yet many states don’t require parents to be notified when their child has been restrained or put in isolation.

“It’s a complex issue for schools that are very concerned these days with keeping order and safety,” Vogell says. “In the process, what some advocates are saying is that they do reach for these tools too often.”

You can listen to their full conversation on SoundCloud, iTunes and Stitcher, and read Vogell's investigation, her first for ProPublica, here. You can also see the other elements in her project below:

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