Help curtail the use of seclusion and restraint in schools

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actionAction to Keep Students Safe is a community organizing and multimedia campaign shining a national spotlight on efforts to pass the federal Keeping All Students Safe Act (H.R. 1893). The Act will establish minimum safety standards and will curtail the use of physical restraints and seclusion in our nation's schools.

It has long been a well hidden fact that students are being traumatized and are dying at the hands of school staff who misuse these unregulated behavior management techniques. This is institutionalized child abuse, and it is everyone's responsibility to stop it. Join us. Together we can close this horrifying chapter in the history of American public education.


  1. Garry L. Earles, LICSW's avatar
    Garry L. Earles, LICSW
    | Permalink
    July 25, 2013


    The entire concept (and notion) of "behavior management in the classroom" is quite the misnomer in that educators see students with mental health challenges as primarily, if not solely, behavioral misfits. These are the students who are rude, obnoxious and disruptive, requiring “management.” In their defense, though, they are taught and therefore, know nothing different. Obviously, there needs to be some semblance of decorum in such an environment, one that enables ALL STUDENTS an opportunity to learn. The issue is how to go about that. Let’s examine this more closely.

    When I was first in training as a clinician (if you must, late 1960s/early 70s), residential facilities for both youth and adults, abounded. Many, seeing these types of settings as “warehouses,” advocated for the philosophy of a “least restrictive environment.” Once that concept took hold and appeared legislatively, the movement was on to close these abhorrent facilities. Unfortunately, the attendant philosophy of “community mental health services” hadn’t caught up with the reality of “dumping” many former residents into communities across the country. That is to say that such services were inadequate if even available. Consequently, individuals who were once “institutionalized” were now openly among the general public population, for better or for worse. When it comes to children and adolescents, many of these youth are now ensconced in public school classrooms, rightly or wrongly. One could reasonably ask, “Where are residential facilities now when we need them?” Clearly, while we are now bereft of these settings, some youth could benefit from them.

    Federal special education law mandates that ALL students be afforded equal access to a public education. So, if the student is bipolar, find a way to educate them. If the student is challenged by executive dysfunction, develop resources to educate them. Etc., etc., etc.
    The problem with that approach is that it’s not about education, it’s about mental health. Educators educate; clinicians treat. Unfortunately, there is a disconnect between those two schools of thought, if not outright animosity.

    I have worked with numerous educators in my various child and adolescent mental health professional development seminars. Overwhelmingly, they are sincere, sensitive, dedicated and hard working professionals. They are, however being set up to fail when it comes to interacting with, let alone understanding and appreciating the challenges faced by their mental health students. Simply put, that is because they receive little (mostly none) background information/training in child and adolescent mental health. So, when confronted with a stressed, upset, defiant student (whose diagnosis they may or may not be privy to), they try to impose what they have been told to implement - classroom behavior management. Often, those moments occur in a crisis situation so the “Interventionist” gets called down to the classroom to put out the fire by any means necessary. It is that scenario that opens the door to seclusion and restraint.

    My frustration is this. Most behavior management interventions are uneducated responses meant to reestablish classroom control. The authority will out, so to speak. The credo is: These kids WILL BE MADE to stop disrupting the other students (and thereby preventing them from accessing their own learning opportunities). They are ordered to behave or face the consequences. And, if they don’t, the price for not doing so, escalates. The sad part is that this approach isn’t working very well is it? There’s got to be another way.

    What’s needed is a philosophy based on sound information about child and adolescent mental health that engenders an understanding and appreciative attitude about students so challenged. That is something the established educational system has failed miserably to address. Those who set policy seem determined to continue to do things the same ol’ same ol’ way. Similar to the state of addiction, mucky muck educators are seemingly convinced that “the next time will be different.” They need a 12 Step program to address that malady.

    Now, I’m not at all suggesting that dealing with these types of kids is easy. On the contrary, they are incredibly demanding; assisting them is very labor intensive. Treating them as if they can modify or control, let alone extinguish their behavioral imperatives, merely demonstrates the ignorance educators (of course, others as well) have about these students. Actually, the term behavioral health is duplicitous in generating this misguided perception and the accompanying attitude directed toward mental health students.

    Bipolar kids are moody, ADHD kids get incredibly frustrated and Tourette kids tic. It is the nature of their particular beast. It is those sorts of “internal” conditions that, in essence, dictate the outward manifestations, namely the behaviors. We need to realize that those behaviors are not dictated by cognitive/conscious, voluntarily directed choices/decisions. To say that “brain wiring” is in charge (as in The Brain Has A Mind Of Its Own), should suffice.

    The entire educational culture needs to change. Educators need to incorporate learning about student mental health into their institutional curricula (e.g. teacher certification programs). That will help them to actually understand what is occurring with these students as they hopefully acquire a greater appreciation for their student’s experience in being, for instance, bipolar. Only then is it possible for new and different ways of trying to help these kids to be developed. We need to begin working in constructive fashion with these students in ways that would, hopefully, preclude the eventual use of seclusion and restraint. Outright outlawing of such arcane processes, while important and significant in the short run, will not go far in changing the culture inherent in such practices.

    Thanks for taking the time to read and consider my comments. Garry L. Earles, LICSW
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