How Public School Administrators Endanger Special-Needs Kids

When faced with the choice between protecting children or protecting the public school system, the system's lawyers chose to protect the system.


If a parent in Virginia repeatedly locked a 7-year-old child in a closet, child-protective social service agencies would come down on him like a ton of bricks. But if a school administrator does the same thing, he has a green light to keep it up.

Hypothetical? Not at all. That very thing happened to an autistic student in Powhatan, Virginia. School officials never even bothered to inform the parents about the punishment. Sean Campbell, the boy's father, learned about it one day when his son began pleading not to send him to school again.

How often do such things happen? Anecdotal horror stories are abundant, but nobody can say for sure because, believe it or not, nobody keeps regular data.

Children's advocates estimate three-fourths of kids who are locked in seclusion, tied up, duct-taped to their desks, or otherwise physically restrained have some sort of disability. But they don't know what percentage of children are subjected to seclusion or restraint in a special-education setting and what percentage are subjected to such treatment in the regular school setting. That would seem like a fairly basic thing to know.

Depending on the numbers, it could suggest too many students with disabilities who really require the ministrations of special education are being placed in regular classes—or that too few teachers even in special education are receiving appropriate training. Or both. Or neither. Or something else entirely. Nobody knows.

Like roughly half of all states, Virginia has only a few toothless guidelines regarding the use of seclusion and physical restraint.

If a teacher hog-ties a difficult student and leaves her lying on her stomach, barely able to breathe, the school does not need to report the incident to the central office or the state. It doesn't even have to tell the child's parents. And if it ever does, it might do so using bureaucratic euphemisms, such as saying the child was sent to a "quiet room"—without mentioning the quiet room is a bare concrete cell or a converted broom closet.

Treatment like that would be hard on any grade-schooler, but many of those who receive it suffer from autism, developmental disabilities or emotional problems that can make such experiences traumatic. As parent Marie Tucker told lawmakers during a hearing, "My exuberant, confident 5-year-old, who was so excited to start school, began begging not to go and telling me he was the worst, most baddest kid ever, who would rather go to jail or die than go back to school another day."

Two bills in the General Assembly—HB 1443 and its Senate companion, SB 782—would take modest steps to address this problem by instructing the state Board of Education to adopt new regulations. Those rules would incorporate a set of 15 principles established by the federal Department of Education.

The principles are not onerous; they lay down common-sense markers such as reserving physical restraint for cases when it is needed for safety's sake, and requiring notification of parents when restraint or seclusion is used on their child.

The legislation has support from both Republicans and Democrats—not to mention dozens of civil-liberties, disability-rights and child abuse-prevention groups. Federal legislation along the same lines enjoys similar broad backing. After all, it would be hard to argue with such basic safeguards.

Yet incredibly, some do. Public school administrators don't want to be pinned down by more rules. Moreover, they want to cover their backsides.

When this issue arose a few years ago, according to a state memo, officials with the Virginia Department of Education "contacted five school board attorneys and the (Virginia School Boards Association)—regarding their reluctance to support" stronger policies on seclusion and restraint.

The lawyers responded that the lack of a policy helped shield school systems from lawsuits: "For example, a school division could be held liable for establishing a policy that causes constitutional deprivations when that policy is used by someone who is reckless or deliberately indifferent to the consequences. The charge could be that the person did not follow the policy and therefore, was negligent in his/her actions. On the other hand, if there is no 'policy,' then the school division could argue that the school individual used his/her own discretion based on the circumstances . . . and, therefore, the person was not negligent."

In short: When faced with the choice between protecting children or protecting the system, the system's lawyers chose to protect the system. Anyone surprised?

Given such attitudes, lawmakers should be wary of attempts to soften the legislation by making its reforms exhortatory rather than mandatory. They also should treat with skepticism the pleas from administrators who don't want to be tied down by rules, so that children can be tied up with ropes.

NEXT: Meet Ann Legra: Exhibit 24,340 in the Case Against Current Teacher Tenure Rules

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  1. If you want your kid mainstreamed then you’re going to have to deal with some duct taping.

    1. The child is bound to learn a lesson.

  2. I’m surprised teachers who do these things to children don’t experience very bad accidents.

  3. Wasn’t the quiet room created because normal forms of restraint/punishment aren’t allowed? Just what the hell are teachers supposed to do with a violent child, beyond the very stupid send all the other kids out of the classroom until the violent kid gets tired of their tantrum. This would all be solved with privatizing schools and letting parents decide what they want teachers to do with their kids, but in the context of public schools, there aren’t exactly a lot of options to handle precious snow flakes.

    1. The proper solution is the one that they used when I was kid, and probably aren’t allowed to use any more. If you acted up and refused to go to the principal’s office, an assistant principal (no security guards here), who was literally twice your size, came down and escorted you to the office. If that escort involved dragging you by the collar, so be it.

  4. If my child was hogtied, she’d be sure to tell me about it. I’d take it up with the principal, and if ignored I’d take her out of their jurisdiction. Parental responsibility.

    1. Yes, but in this case it was a 7 year old who had autism. And when the father found out he objected.

      So there isn’t really any failing on the part of the parents that I see.

  5. Why does this happen? As A. Barton Hinkle explains, when faced with the choice between protecting children or protecting the public school system, the system’s lawyers chose to protect the system.

    That’s the truth whether we’re talking about a school district or any other government bureaucracy out there: those who benefit from the system will invariably seek to protect it from us.

    1. Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people”:

      First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisors in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.

      Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself. Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.

      The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization.

      1. I like that. What book did Pournelle introduce that law in?

        1. I don’t think that’s actually stated in a book, just something he wrote in 2006 on his website.

          And it does seem to accurately reflect the behavior of a lot of large organizations.


  6. I ahve a much simpler proposal; reduce the criminality of horsewhipping a teacher or school administrator to a,fined offense,running at (say) $25 per.

    1. Is there a Bulk discount rate available?

  7. For the kids! FOR THE KIDS! FOR THE KIDS*

    * except when it actually has something to do with the kids. Then… F’ the Kids.

  8. “…when that policy is used by someone who is reckless or deliberately indifferent to the consequences.” Maybe if government workers where subjected to the consequences of their actions, they wouldn’t be indifferent to them. But, that’s just a thought.

  9. Slightly OT, but excellent chart regarding personnel increases for public school administrators/other staff.…..-the-butt/

  10. Charters are much better than this. They just refuse disabled kids! Checkmate, public schools.

    1. Absolute BS!

      Charters just don’t take thugs and overly spoiled snowflakes…

  11. I’ve never seen anything that bad… I worked in Best Buddies, a club to befriend the special ed kids and it all felt a bit shallow. Most of the other people with me were girls who were condescending to these teenagers that despite their difficulties were a lot like the rest of us.

    What bothered me the most was seeing them do menial tasks as part of their “education”, things like stocking vending machines and janitorial work… things the school should be hiring people to do.

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