Brutal and allowed: The shocking ways schools can restrain kids

LONGVIEW, Wash. - Lacey still bristles when she recalls the time teachers pinned her daughter to the ground following an outburst in elementary school. Lacey's daughter, who was 7 at the time, is on the Autism spectrum.

"I was shocked," said Lacey, who asked KATU not to reveal her last name or her daughter's name. "They had policies and procedures in place before this incident happened and they weren't followed."

Lacey said the incident began when her daughter hissed, growled and threatened other students in her second grade class in the Longview School District two years ago. Lacey said staff members moved her daughter to a resource room, designed to calm her down, but she continued to act out.

"What they told me is that she started throwing some soft objects, started kicking the wall," Lacey said. "So they decided to put her in a restraint: face-down prone hold."

In a prone hold, school staff hold a child face-down on the floor, which can restrict breathing. The restraint is so dangerous it's banned in at least 20 states, including Oregon.

"I was angry," Lacey said. "Are you kidding me?"

Lacey is a mother of four children - two of whom are on the Autism spectrum - so she is no stranger to behavioral problems or Individualized Education Plans (IEP), which are written statements for students with disabilities.

Lacey said teachers tried a number of ways to calm down her youngest daughter when she would occasionally act out.

"I've dealt with it all - everything from the bear hug where they do with a little kid and wrap their arms around them to escorts and stuff where their hands are still on them - escorting them once place to the next," Lacey said.

It's part of the reason why Lacey was so startled when she said her daughter revealed that she'd been pinned down.

"At that time, when she was on IEP, she didn't have a behavior plan so as far as I know, she wasn't being restrained (in school) for any reason," Lacey said.

'They're coming home with injuries'

"It's really amazing to read these incredible, heart-breaking stories from parents about what's happened to their children," said Heather Vogell, a journalist for independent news agency

In an eye-opening report, Vogell analyzed nationwide data that showed schools physically restrained kids 163,000 times in the 2011-2012 school year alone. In 7,600 cases, districts used restraint devices like straps, handcuffs, bungee cords - even duct tape - on children. ProPublica also reported 104,000 times when children were placed in secluded "scream rooms."

Figures indicate that around 75 percent of the students who were restrained had physical, emotional or intellectual disabilities, according to the report.

"There are some really eye-popping numbers in there and there are some places advocates, at least, and some of the experts would say, they need to take a look at their practices and see if they're really helping children," Vogell said.

"(Parents) are sending their child off to school to be educated, to be cared for, and they're coming home with injuries, with broken bones, with bruises, with psychological trauma."

Many educators and policy-makers across the country, including the American Association of School Administrators, argue that restraint measures are used only as a last resort to keep children and staff safe. They insist restraint and seclusion are tools reserved for situations when the student is a physical danger to one's self or others.

"We believe the use of seclusion and restraint has enabled many students with serious emotional or behavioral conditions to be educated not only within our public schools, but also in the least restrictive and safest environments possible," the American Association of School Administrators wrote in a 2012 report.

But Vogell said the data almost certainly understate what's really happening.

"Even though those numbers were amazing to look at, they were not telling us the whole picture because a lot of the districts are under-reporting," Vogell said.

Vogell found the largest school districts in the country - New York, Los Angeles and Chicago - didn't report a single incident during the 2011-2012 year.

"Even if you had a policy, or you were trying to encourage teachers and school staff to keep their hands off children and not allowing restraints, most places would still allow them in an emergency circumstance to break up a fight," Vogell said. "You would expect that to happen at least once in one of those three humongous school districts over the course of the year."

Sure enough, when the On Your Side Investigators looked at Propublica's data in Washington state, the Battle Ground, Longview and Vancouver School Districts reported zeros across the board.

We found the same trend in Oregon where the Beaverton School District and the state's largest district - Portland Public Schools - reported all zeros.

The On Your Side Investigators filed public records requests for restraint data at several school districts in Washington and Oregon.

We found the Camas School District in Washington doesn't keep a log of restraint incidents and, according to human resource director Rita Pakenen, the district doesn't use restraint devices.

"Records are kept only in individual students' records, which are protected by the Family Educational Rights to Privacy Act (FERPA)," Pakenen said.

The North Clackamas School District in Oregon reported 31 incidents where kids were physically restrained during the 2012-2013 school year, which caused a dozen injuries. In four cases, staff members were not trained.

The Hillsboro School District in Oregon reported 849 incidents of restraint during the 2012-2013 school year. Of those cases, 90 were physically restrained. During that same year, 34 students were restrained or put into isolation more than 10 times. Plus, 28 staff members who carried out the discipline were untrained, according to the report.

Hillsboro's executive director of student services, Elaine Fox, said: "We have done and are continuing to do intensive training on behavior management with our teachers and assistants and feel we are improving our system for both students and staff. That being said, we have always complied with all federal and state guidelines and will continue to do so with the safety of our students as our highest concern."

Evergreen Public Schools, Portland Public Schools and Beaverton School District had not provided KATU with restraint data by the time this report was filed.

'There's no way to make sense of it'

Donna Patrick, the Director of Public Policy for Washington State Developmental Disabilities Council, knows Lacey's story well.

"It's in my collection," Patrick said. "I collected lots of stories."

Patrick documented dozens of horror stories about restraint and isolation from parents across Washington state and used it as ammunition to help spearhead a bill requiring parental notification when their children are restrained.

Representative Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, co-sponsored the bill. Stonier's also a teacher at Pacific Middle in the Evergreen Public School district.

"I'm a middle school teacher and I've been at my middle school for 14 years," Stonier told the On Your Side Investigators. "I'd be troubled if I found out that was happening and parents weren't notified."

Stonier's bill passed last year, but not as she or Patrick expected. Instead of all parents receiving notification if their child was restrained, the bill - in it's final form - only requires notification to the parents of students with an IEP.

"We thought this was our first step and we thought this would be the easiest thing," Patrick said. "Who could be against notifying parents? (It) wasn't that simple. It was controversial. There were people who opposed it."

Washington state restraint policy lags behind other states

That opposition may explain why Washington lags behind other states when it comes to legislation to protect children from restraints.

"There is very much a patchwork of laws and regulations about this across the country," Vogell said.

The U.S Department of Education has federal best practice guidelines about restraint and seclusion, but state school districts are under no legal obligation to follow them.

In conjunction with research from Jessica Butler, a national advocate for children with autism, Vogell created a map showing where each state stands based on six key elements that are outlined in reform bills and U.S. Department of Education guidelines.

According to the report, the provisions apply only to disabled students in some states while it applies to all students in other states. The policy elements are:

  • Is the use of restraints limited to emergencies?
  • Is the use of seclusions limited to emergencies?
  • Is parental notification of either practice required?
  • Is the use of seclusions prohibited?
  • Are restraints that restrict breathing banned?
  • Are mechanical restraints prohibited?

Vogell explained, "What we wanted to do was to standardize it a little bit and to try to understand - on a spectrum - how much states were trying to reduce the practice of restraint and seclusion, which is something that I think, pretty much everyone agrees is something that should be done."

ProPublica gave each state a score based on how well it followed the non-mandatory guidelines. The best score was 12. Georgia was the only state in the country to receive that score. Oregon wasn't far behind with a score of 10. But Washington state only scored a three.

Unlike Oregon, Washington school districts allow restraints outside of emergency situations.

In Oregon, restraint devices are prohibited, but In Washington, districts may use restraint devices like handcuffs, ankle ties, and leather cuffs.

In Oregon, if a student is restrained, the student's parents must be notified. But remember, in Washington, the duty to notify parents is limited to children in special education programs.

It's a limitation Stonier said she is working to change - again.

"We definitely have it in our folder of things as soon as we get back to Olympia," Stonier said.

As for the other issues ProPublica's report raises Stonier said, "We want to make sure that we have things in place that keep kids safe, we have guidelines in place that keep kids safe."

In the two years since Lacey said her daughter was pinned down, Lacey said she's worked out a behavior plan with the district. But she also admits her mind is not completely at ease.

"I have to really be very watchful in what they do," Lacey said. "If it happened to my daughter, I'm sure it's happening to more than just her."

Longview School District statement:

The On Your Side Investigators reached out to the Longview Public Schools for comment and received the following statement from district spokeswoman Sandy Catt:

"In regards to the specific situation you described we do not release information about our students due to respect for privacy.

"In general terms, Longview staff members are re-certified annually on Right Response which is used to help children de-escalate themselves. Restraint is a last resort and is only used temporarily while the child de-escalates, at which time all other forms of de-escalation to help the child calm themselves are used.

"The District is committed to ensuring the safety of our students and staff and providing equal educational opportunities for all students. Our schools operate under policies and procedures adopted by the Board of Directors and consistent with state law that spell out the very limited circumstances in which staff may use physical contact to ensure the safety of students. Please see
Policy and Procedure"