Making safer and more equitable classrooms requires change

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Like many other issues in our country right now, a case before the United States Supreme Court, Endrew F. vs. Douglas County School District, is causing heated national debate. The case involves a child with autism in Colorado whose parents are suing the school district over whether he is being denied his legal right for a meaningful education in the public school setting.

At the root of the argument is the level of education public schools are required to provide students with disabilities. Existing legislation defines this requirement as “free appropriate public education.” But, what does that really mean? There are those who interpret it as “some” education — often understood as the bare minimum — while others believe it should be defined as providing “meaningful,” substantial benefit.  Beyond this “blizzard of words,” as Justice Alito described it, is an even more pressing issue – one that presents the greatest barrier to learning for children with disabilities.

{mosads}Children with disabilities — particularly those with intellectual disabilities, behavioral problems, and communication or sensory related disabilities — are disproportionately secluded and restrained in classroom settings on a regular basis. According to recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, students with disabilities comprise two-thirds of the 277,000 children who are secluded from their classmates or restrained annually, despite representing only 12 percent of the overall student population.

Why is this important in this particular case? If a special needs student is spending the majority of their day restrained or in a seclusion room, it doesn’t matter how challenging the lessons, what goals are set or how good the intention; a child simply can’t learn if they are in emotional or physical submission for the majority of the school day.

Surely, a free appropriate education, regardless of the nuances used to define that term, ensures children are not physically or emotionally abused. 

However, for many years, teachers have been taught that physical restraint and seclusion as the default approach when a student acts out. Until educators are given training that offers meaningful intervention, which includes safe, physical alternatives to use before restraint or seclusion, our classrooms will not be productive educational environments for any child, not just children with disabilities.

While these “behavioral modification techniques” have historically been considered appropriate, we now know these techniques have potentially deadly and, without question, traumatic consequences. They are not evidence-based practices and there is no data to suggest that either leads to reduced violent or uncontrolled behavior. In fact, research indicates that restraint and seclusion actually cause, reinforce and maintain aggression and violence. And they are certainly barriers to education.

As demonstrated by the Supreme Court case, parents are often the greatest advocates. New statistics recently released by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) cites a significant increase in complaints involving restraint and seclusion of children with disabilities. According to the report, Securing Equal Educational Opportunity, the overall number of complaints filed last year with the U.S. Department of Education’s OCR soared to a record 16,720, with the largest increases in the areas of restraint or seclusion of students with disabilities.

I anticipate the number of complaints will continue to rise unless educators are given training that offers meaningful intervention and alternatives to restraint and seclusion. Only then will these complaints decrease.

But this can be done. Grafton Integrated Health Network — an organization serving children and adults with autism and co-occurring psychiatric diagnoses — initiated an agency-wide restraint reduction over a decade ago, achieving compelling results: reducing the use of restraints by 99.8 percent and significantly reduced the number of injuries to both clients and those who care for them.

Today, Grafton is helping other organizations’ to do the same through Ukeru Systems, a division of the organization which provides training for a safe, comforting and restraint-free approach to crisis management.

So while I applaud the debate about what an “appropriate” education looks like for children with disabilities, we are skipping a fundamental first step. Before we can educate children, we have to stop hurting them.

Kim Sanders is President of Ukeru Systems, a division of Grafton Integrated Health Network, which trains direct support professionals, teachers, clinicians and others in the conceptual and technical elements of trauma informed care, physical restraint-free crisis management approaches, and conflict resolution.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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