His name is Bill - and he is fighting against seclusion and restraint

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billI want to tell you a story about a guy named Bill. Quite accomplished, nationally recognized for both journalism and media, his work has appeared in some of the nation's leading publications including the New York Times. His work has been honored with more than 60 major journalism awards, including a Peabody Award; a Guggenheim Fellowship; eight National Headliner Awards; a United Nations Media Award, and three National News Emmy Award nominations. As we like to say here at the Network - Dude got some serious credibility.

Oh yeah, one other thing - he is also the father of a beautiful young daughter who had the experience no child should ever have - being placed in a seclusion room at school with dramatic and terrifying effect - repeatedly - for months before her parents found out this form of "discipline," was being applied to their five-year old daughter.

Here is an excerpt from Bill's article that appeared in the Sept. 9, 2012 Sunday New York Times to give you some context:

When Bill first wrote about his experience in the Sunday New York Times, the response was quick. The school system in question hired a PR consultant to tell their side of the story and highlight what they saw as lies (their words) made by Bill in describing the situation. A week later the Times printed an editor's note, reportedly in response to pressure from his town's school board, challenging some of the assertions made by Bill and bringing out personal details of his life that left me scratching my head as to why they were relevant. Then, in a September 16 article in the Boston Globe, which focused on the Times' editor's note, it was noted that the PR consultant hired by the school district stated in an email that "Bill Lichtenstein strung together lie after lie to paint a picture of abuse that never happened...” despite the school district having paid nearly $400,000 to settle a legal action over the abuse. Details of a personal family life (divorce, custody) were unceremoniously shared in the Times and other papers across New England as if to add bearing to the assertion that much of Bill's claims were false. Other newspapers in the New England area picked up on the story, falsehoods continued to be spread, and through it all, this dad named Bill diligently provided all evidence, documents and testimony from others that proved that indeed, what he was saying was true; that he had found his daughter in a basement closet and had reported it to the authorities.

As I read Bill's story, which he and the Times stand by and which remains uncorrected on the New York Times web site, along with laudatory letters from readers, and the accompanying editor's note that gave space to Lexington schools to raise their unsubstantiated and unanswered objections and to question his credibility, I was quite frankly sickened. I was sickened by the realization that no matter how much "credibility" you might have - and make no mistake - Bill has serious credibility - how quickly an allegation of serious misuse of discipline against a school can turn into an indictment of the parent seeking answers instead of looking at the treatment of the child and alternative strategies to seclusion and restraint that could and should be taught to teachers in situations like these. In an instant, the chatter in the New England press was not about the abhorrence of putting a 5 year old girl in a padded isolation room but instead was focused on whether the parents were still married and who had custody of the daughter, or when it was reported to the state authorities, rather than why they failed to respond. The school system and the media coverage went right to character defamation of somebody who has impeccable journalistic credentials. They created a large enough dust storm that the hugely important issue that seclusion is, as Bill puts it, "A Terrifying Way to Discipline" was lost in the hoopla.

Reading about Bill and his journey got me to thinking. Here is this incredibly accomplished individual with more prominent connections on his little finger than I, for one, will ever have in my lifetime - and he is being slammed for speaking out about the issue of how to effectively (if at all) use seclusion and restraint in a school setting. If someone with his credibility is taking it on the chin, what hope does a family member of lesser means and fewer connections, a "regular Joe," have if they were to speak out about how their child was being inappropriately placed in a seclusion room? Especially if that regular Joe's son or daughter was attending a school that was overtaxed, understaffed, over-populated with students and "Joe" was counting his lucky stars for what little services his child may or may not be receiving?

I have spent the last 25 years talking to families and providers about the issues and challenges that concern them most. Seclusion and restraint is one of those issues that cause frustration and consternation for both teachers and families alike. For teachers, class sizes continue to grow, Aide positions continue to be cut and behavioral issues among students are a real concern. And if that were not enough, training on how to effectively deal with student behavior is woefully lacking.

For parents, the concern is even more frightening. For many, the fear of speaking out against inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint is almost paralyzing, especially for those who are in school systems where resources are scarce and the idea of "rocking the boat" is not even an option. "If you are a troublemaker, life will be worse for your child," seems to be the conventional thinking in situations like this. Bill says he spoke out, in large part, because he had been told other children had been placed in the seclusion room, as was his daughter, and in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky case, he felt that adults who had evidence of child abuse had a social responsibility to come forward. Also, Bill read shocking accounts of children around the country who had been restrained and put in isolation rooms this past summer when Senator Tom Harkin's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held hearings on restraint and seclusion. Here are just a few examples of parents who were mentioned at the hearings, whom Bill mentioned in his New York Times article:

So this was the dilemma for me in reading Bill's story and making the decision to share it through the CMHNetwork. How do you share a story while at the same time not scaring parents off from speaking out? Maybe the more important question is, "How do you not?"

As I have shared Bill's story in meetings with family members, educators and providers, the silent palpable recognition in the eyes around the room speak volumes to the dilemma families face in summoning the courage to speak out. If accolade and resource-rich Bill is getting slammed, what chance do they have to make a difference? I think, at minimum, we must do the following:

I had a chance to speak with Bill as I was making my final edits to this piece. What he said is worth quoting here:

I encourage you to visit Bill's website where you can read about his journey and get involved in the discussion about seclusion and restraint. As always, share your thoughts at the end of this post as well.

You should also be aware of the “Keeping All Students Safe Act (S.2020),” which was introduced in the U.S. Senate last December, as well as in the House (as H.R. 1381). This bill would limit the use of physical restraint and seclusion of students who are out of control or may pose harm to themselves or others. According to Senator Harkin, the Democratic sponsor of the bill, “Every child should be educated in a supportive, caring, stimulating environment in which they are treated as an individual and provided with the tools they need to succeed. They should never be subjected to abusive or violent disciplinary strategies or left alone and unsupervised. This bill will set long-overdue standards to protect children from physical and psychological harm and ensure a safe learning environment for teachers and students alike.” For a concise review of the history of this legislation, click here.

The National Disabilities Rights Network in a January 2009 report (School is not Supposed to Hurt) revealed that the use of seclusion and restraint, which are often unregulated and used disproportionately on children with disabilities, frequently result in injury, trauma, and even death.

As with any topic we highlight at the CMHNetwork, there are two sides to every story. Opposition to the legislation is coming from groups like the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). The AASA is objecting to the requirement that restraint can only be used to avoid serious bodily injury. The AASA finds the standard problematic because it would be impossible for school staff to determine whether the risk of injury in a crisis situation could or could not lead to serious bodily injury, leaving school districts open to legal action should their use of physical restraint be deemed inappropriate after the fact. The AASA is also arguing that the data collection provisions of the act as well the demands on staff training will be both burdensome and costly for school districts. According to Sasha Pedelski, AASA government affairs manager of the AASA, “If Congress wants to make seclusion and restraint safer and more effective, then Congress should provide funds to implement more professional development and training for school staff members on evidence-based practices that reduce the inappropriate use of these techniques. Grants to districts to support appropriate intervention practices, such as positive behavior interventions and supports could make a huge difference in student safety and in school districts’ ability to use these practices wisely.”

Check out this impassioned plea from Representative Miller of California in support of the bill concerning seclusion and restraint that passed the House in 2010 - It will give you chills. The current bill in the House and the Senate still languishes: 

scottI encourage you to share your thoughts and experiences with seclusion and restraint in the comment section below.

Scott Bryant-Comstock, President & CEO
Children's Mental Health Network


  1. Mrs.Medina's avatar
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    It happened to my son Jino Medina. On October 27, 2011 he came home from his Autism Specific Program with head trauma. I received a call just minutes before the buss arrived from the the schools office informing that he had been restrained. He was 11, only weighing 80 lbs and 5 adult staff members isolated him in his 5th grade classroom. He was stuck in the head and pinned to the ground. My son has suffered from his head injuries to this day. As I soon found out, he had been restrained and put into seclusion daily for 2 school years. I never had a chance to save my son from this. It is horrific to get that call to be informed once it is too late. School employees should be mandated to report to the parent/family exactly what they are doing while a child is in their care. My son fell into the hands of a very unprofessional and untrained environment that operated like a psyche ward and he suffered in silence until the day it went too far damaging him for life. As much as it hurts to write about this, I think about how he was sent to school for an education, only to be locked away in a white room where he was physically forced everyday to comply in and out of seclusion, and then I realize how determined I was believing that I had services for Autism to help my son.. I was wrong, pro-act restraint and seclusion was all that was effective and it was not written or signed for or approved by my knowledge, what I knew as rewarding behavior aka-"token system" became use of the computer if compliance was met. I share this because the S 2020 bill is important to control those who mis-use restraint and seclusion by the most extreme forms. To this day, those who led a path of abuse escalating to my sons harms are still employed and working with children, the district and law enforcement never made any form of justice to seek action to those who physically ad emotionally damaged my child. Yet my son says "I want to go to school, I should have learned how to read, I am afraid IT will happen again, I am afraid for my friends, I don't know if they are ok, I want to see them one day..."
  2. Jeannine Somberg's avatar
    Jeannine Somberg
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    My son experienced seclusion and restraints for years at the hands of untrained staff. One thing for sure is that they never forget what was done to them.
  3. Mamabear's avatar
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    My son was locked in a basement room, not much bigger than a cement cold room. He was in that room for 2 or more hours at a time, screaming and urinating in the room after begging to use the bathroom. He is now 8 years old and on three different kinds of medication to control his anxiety. "Unintended consequences"?
  4. Autismmom's avatar
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    Seclusion rooms WHEN USED PROPERLY and by TRAINED staff are very effective. Please don't take away something that is helping kids! Instead, advocate for the safe and proper use of them. A parent can always have it in their child's behavior plan if they don't want it used for their child. The idea is to have a safe place for the child to de-escalate and recognize when they are losing control. They are eventually faded out. Also, restraint also needs to be used ONLY by trained people. The school needs to be able to protect students from hurting themselves, other students, or teachers. Some of these kids are extremely violent and restraint is necessary as a safety measure. Neither restraint or seclusion should ever be used as a punishment or done to hurt or abuse a child. But, if noth are done away with, schools are just going to put an end to inclusion and instead place these students in outside, more restrictive placement...and we will have stepped backwards, 20 years! Please consider the "unintended consequences".
  5. NVAdvocate's avatar
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    The AASA is ridiculous holding out that it "finds the standard problematic because it would be impossible for school staff to determine whether the risk of injury in a crisis situation could or could not lead to serious bodily injury, leaving school districts open to legal action should their use of physical restraint be deemed inappropriate after the fact." As if finding a child battered and bruised or lying in a pool of urine will not "be deemed inappropriate after the fact." In Nevada we passed a law in 1999 to eliminate the use of aversive interventions including seclusion in 1999. No one has died here, and word is that the cages at Miley achievement center (yes, a public school) in Las Vegas were quickly removed. In Reno, just this past spring, the local chapter of People First started an investigation into the number and location of "scream rooms" built in the nineties, and as a result the doors have come off all of them by order of the district. A kinder, gentler system of education is possible. Positive behavioral supports work, and in fact out of control behavior is more often a response to seclusion and restraint, not the precursor to their use. If we can do this in Nevada, certainly we can do this as a nation.
  6. Ange's avatar
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    Can't believe my son is going to be 13 soon, and restraint and seclusion happened to him at 6. So many years have passed, so many chances for the federal government to do *something* to protect kids like mine. Yet nothing.
  7. Anna's avatar
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    I have been in this fight since my 7 year old son was abused by restraints. I create video's to raise awareness of what is happening to our children in the public school system.

    "America's Forgotten Children" Restraint & Seclusion Awareness Video
  8. Phyllis's avatar
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    Restraint and seclusion is a growing problem in the public school system all over the United States.
  9. Velden Calica's avatar
    Velden Calica
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    An article that should be read by every parent that has a child in school. My heart goes out to Rose and my admiration for Bill.
  10. Shannon CrossBear's avatar
    Shannon CrossBear
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    Great article. Thanks.
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