If we’re serious about uprooting racism and abuses of power, we should start with restraints in our schools

July 10, 2020 12:01 am

Children play tag in a hallway at Fox Elementary School in Richmond, (Ned Oliver/ 2019 Virginia Mercury file photo)

By Beth Tolley

George Floyd’s murder is having a tremendous impact across the nation — and rightly so!  It is a terrible tragedy.  The fact that it occurred over a question about a fake $20 bill has struck a note with many parents and advocates who have seen the same thing happen to students in Virginia schools and across the nation.  The use of deadly restraint is not just something happening on the streets, it starts in our schools.  

Too often control and compliance are the answer when children are unable to meet classroom expectations.  There are many reasons that children have difficulty meeting expectations, including lagging brain development and/or activation of their brains’ survival mechanisms. The troublesome behaviors are usually not volitional, not choices. Teachers and other school personnel who are not knowledgeable about brain neuroscience, including state dependent functioning and stress responses see struggling children as “bad kids” who must be punished in order to teach them a lesson, or more benevolently to “help them learn from the consequences of their behavior.” These lessons are implemented through harsh reprimands and exclusionary discipline, including restraint, seclusion, suspension and expulsion.  

Restraint is defined by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education as a personal restriction that immobilizes or reduces the ability of a student to move his or her torso, arms, legs or head freely. OCR defines seclusion as the involuntary confinement of a student alone in a room or area from which the student is physically prevented from leaving.

Restraint and seclusion have no documented evidence of therapeutic or educational value; to the contrary, there is extensive documentation of harm, including emotional trauma and physical harm up to and including death.  Yet many teachers, administrators and state department of education staff insist these procedures are necessary to keep students and teachers safe. I wonder if those who are defending the use of restraint and seclusion are up to date with their knowledge of neuroscience, child development, attachment and trauma research. 

Restraints can kill innocent children whose offense is behavior that has been deemed unacceptable by school personnel.  Trivial incidents for kids, like the fake $20 bill in George Lloyd’s case, are escalated by the adult response.  In the past 20 months, two students died after being placed in restraints at their schools.  In November 2018, Max Benson, a 13-year-old autistic boy kicked a wall. His punishment ended being death from prone restraint. In April of this year, Cornelius Fredericks, a 16-year-old Black boy with a trauma history died after being restrained at his school. His offense: throwing a sandwich. 

Disproportionate rates of discipline begin as early as preschool. According to Walter Gilliam, a Yale professor, most preschool suspensions and expulsions are a function of program factors such as class sizes, child-teacher ratios, availability of consultants and teacher factors (e.g., teacher job stress, trauma and depression) rather than children’s behaviors, but it is the child who suffers.  According to Gilliam’s research, African American children are expelled at twice the rate of their non-Black peers, with disparities in suspension even greater

There is no evidence that restraint or seclusion keep anyone safe; in fact the evidence indicates that the use of restraint and seclusion harms not only the students who receive these punishments, but also the other students who observe the procedures and the adults who administer them. The statistics concerning the students who are recipients of restraint and seclusion paint a grim picture. 

In 2015-16 (the latest year for which statistics are available), 124,500 students across the nation were physically restrained, mechanically restrained, or secluded. Nearly 87,000 of those students were subjected to physical or mechanical restraint, and over 37,500 were subjected to seclusion.  Students with disabilities comprised 12 percent of the student population, yet they accounted for 66 percent of the students who are secluded and 71 percent of the students who were restrained. Black students were 15 percent of all students enrolled, 27 percent of students restrained and 23 percent of students secluded. 

In a Facebook post responding to the horror of George Floyd’s death by restraint, a parent commented, “Schools can do the same thing to innocent children, yet everyone turns a blind eye. Our children’s lives matter too. My son may not have died from the illegal restraint methods that were used, but he now lives every day with the trauma of the abuse he suffered at their hands.”  

Now, as the nation is considering the role of police across America, and the harm, including death, that is disproportionately affecting Black citizens, it is also time to pay attention to what the research has documented for many years: Zero tolerance policies and punitive, exclusionary discipline do not work; they harm students.  And they disproportionately harm Black students, especially those with disabilities. It is time to end those practices, beginning with restraint and seclusion.

Beth Tolley is the director of educational strategy for the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint. She retired from the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health two years ago, where she was the team leader for the monitoring and supervision for Infant and Toddler Connection of Virginia. She lives in Henrico.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Guest Column
Guest Column

Views of guest columnists are their own. To submit an op-ed for consideration, contact Commentary Editor Samantha Willis at [email protected].