Protection in Prisons Surpasses Protection in Schools

Protection in Prisons Surpasses Protection in Schools

On Monday, January 25, President Barack Obama announced a groundbreaking executive action banning solitary confinement for juveniles and low-level offenders in federal prisons, noting in a Washington Post op-ed that the age-old punishment technique of isolation is “increasingly overused” and can lead to “devastating, lasting psychological consequences.”

People with disabilities, their parents, and their many allies applaud this significant move. We do so with the knowledge that many juveniles placed in our prisons and subjected to dangerous isolation already have so-called “invisible disabilities” affecting their learning, understanding of social cues, and mental health, and that the use of isolation as a punishment or treatment can derail the development of juveniles in ways that exacerbate — and may even cause — the emergence of disability.

But a profoundly important and obvious question remains: Why are most of our nation’s public schools still permitted to use a form of solitary confinement, known as “seclusion,” to punish or “treat” students with disabilities? These young people have been accused of no crime. Research has shown, time and again, that they do not benefit from this terrifying experience. The practices of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports and Trauma-Informed Care offer many safe and appropriate alternatives. Yet only a tiny minority of states have enacted laws that ban or even limit seclusion in our schools.  With the President’s recent action, we now have reached the point where some students with disabilities could enjoy better protections from seclusion in prison than they are offered in their own schools, where they are supposed to feel safe and loved.

Seclusion is a form of restraint – that is, of forcefully preventing a person from moving about or engaging in various activities. Where you find seclusion, you often find physical, hands-on restraint as well, sometimes as part of the process of forcing a distressed student into a seclusion room. Prone restraint, in which a person is held face down on the floor, is widely recognized as potentially lethal due to the rapidity with which asphyxiation can occur, and is now banned in increasing numbers of service delivery settings.   Many advocates believe that supine (face-up) floor restraint poses much the same danger. Yet only about half of the states have laws prohibiting the use of prone restraint, or restraint that inhibits breathing, on students in school.

In our public schools, students and their families must still contend with a patchwork of regulations that vary from state to state, are often vague and full of loopholes, and in some places do not exist at all. Repeated attempts to pass federal legislation creating nationwide protections against the confinement of school children in “seclusion rooms” and the use of dangerous restraints have so far been unsuccessful, but not because the issue lacked a constituency. Originally introduced in the House, a strong prevention bill passed handily in 2009 but was not introduced in the Senate; in subsequent years similar bills were introduced, but not taken up by committee.

In 2009, a coalition of the nation’s leading disability rights organizations asked the newly-elected President Obama for an executive order banning prone restraint. Seven years later, we are asking again and our case is even stronger, due in no small part to the “Restraint and Seclusion Resource Document“ produced in 2012 by the U.S. Department of Education. This lengthy document is clear and unequivocal in arguing that “… the use of restraint and seclusion can have very serious consequences, including, most tragically, death. Furthermore, there continues to be no evidence that using restraint or seclusion is effective in reducing the occurrence of the problem behaviors that frequently precipitate the use of such techniques. Schools must do everything possible to ensure all children can learn, develop, and participate in instructional programs that promote high levels of academic achievement.” (p. iii)

Surely this is a fitting time to follow the highly-praised executive order protecting juveniles in the prison system from the dangerous psychological and physiological effects of isolation with an order that will similarly prevent the use of seclusion – as well as physical restraint that inhibits breathing — on children and youth in our nation’s classrooms.   The clock is ticking on so many young lives every day we wait.

About APRAIS: The Alliance to Prevent Restraint, Aversive Interventions and Seclusion (APRAIS) was established in 2004 by leading education, research and advocacy organizations with a common goal: to eliminate the use of dangerous and dehumanizing practices as a means of managing challenging behavior. Led by TASH, APRAIS seeks to end of use of unnecessary and dangerous interventions in schools, treatment programs and residential facilities.

Barb Trader
Chair of APRAIS, Executive Director of TASH

Peg Kinsell
The Family Alliance to Stop Abuse and Neglect (APRAIS Founding Member)

Pat Amos
The Family Alliance to Stop Abuse and Neglect (APRAIS Founding Member)