Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

Death Goes to School

Spanking in schools is the least of our punishment problems.

I hardly ever want to read about gruesome deaths or torture, unless they're part of a juicy detective story. And if I did want to read about them, it would never have occurred to me to look at testimony by the Government Accountability Office before a committee of the House of Representatives.
Now I know better, because recently-released testimony has some of the most disturbing material I've ever read. You can see it at The title of the report is "Seclusions and Restraints: Selected Cases of Death and Abuse at Public and Private Schools and Treatment Centers". If you've been reading about the horrors of the Irish reform schools in the past, this report will make you aware that we in the United States are doing just as badly, and what's more we're doing it right now.
For some years, mental health professionals and government officials have been working on the problem of restraint and seclusion in mental hospitals and clinics. New guidelines several years ago required special care before patients, especially children, were placed in mechanical restraint devices, restrained by staff, or placed in isolation. Any use of restraint or seclusion was to be carefully documented and followed by medical monitoring. Staff were to receive training in safe restraint methods, and were to avoid restraining anyone in the prone (face-down) position, as death from asphyxia has resulted from that restraint position, especially if the individual's arms were pulled behind her back.
However, the GAO report shows that the care required in mental health settings has not been required in schools. No federal laws cover this matter, and state laws vary greatly. (My own home state, New Jersey, like a number of other states, has no such laws.)
Here are some of the cases detailed in the report:
• In a Texas public school, a 129-pound 14-year-old boy, who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, did not stay in his seat in class. His 230-pound teacher restrained the boy face-down on the floor and lay on top of him. The boy could not breathe and died of asphyxia. Although the boy's death was ruled a homicide, the teacher was not indicted and is now teaching in Virginia.
• In a Florida public school, five 6- and 7-year-olds were gagged and restrained with duct-tape for misbehaving, by an untrained volunteer teacher's aide who was on probation for burglary. The school had apparently done no background check on the aide, who pled guilty to false imprisonment and battery.
• A 7-year-old girl died in a private day treatment center after hours of restraint in the face-down position, with multiple adults holding her. The adults were apparently not aware that she had stopped breathing.
• A 4-year-old girl with cerebral palsy and a diagnosis of autism was bruised and traumatized in a West Virginia public school. She was restrained in a wooden chair with leather straps for being "uncooperative". A court ruled that the school had been negligent in training and supervision, but that the teachers were not liable.
The GAO report stressed the frequency with which children in these cases had disabilities, were not aggressive, and their parents had not consented to the use of restraint. The report also noted the teachers' lack of training about restraint, and the fact that a number of them are still employed in education in spite of their history. Finally, the report emphasized, as have many other documents, that face-down restraint is potentially lethal.
No one would claim that children should never be restrained at all. A quick move to restrain a child may be essential to maintain the safety of the child or of others, or even to prevent serious property damage. More than one person may be needed to hold a large, aggressive adolescent safely. But what we are talking about here is not restraint for safety. It is restraint as punishment for real or even perceived disobedience, and it is being applied to small, helpless children as well as to teenagers. The GAO report has made it clear that physical abuse of children is not prohibited in public and private schools in the United States, and death as a result is not unknown.
In the next day or so, I will comment on some of the beliefs and ideas that have made abusive restraint acceptable in the eyes of its practitioners.

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Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.


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