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.