Morning Zen

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

October 18, 2012

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:

  • At school, her mother and I found Rose standing alone on the cement floor of a basement mop closet, illuminated by a single light bulb. There was nothing in the closet for a child — no chair, no books, no crayons, nothing but our daughter standing naked in a pool of urine, looking frightened as she tried to cover herself with her hands. On the floor lay her favorite purple-striped Hanna Andersson outfit and panties.

    Rose got dressed and we removed her from the school. We later learned that Rose had been locked in the closet five times that morning. She said that during the last confinement, she needed to use the restroom but didn’t want to wet her outfit. So she disrobed. Rather than help her, the school called us and then covered the narrow door’s small window with a file folder, on which someone had written “Don’t touch!”

    We were told that Rose had been in the closet almost daily for three months, for up to an hour at a time. At first, it was for behavior issues, but later for not following directions. Once in the closet, Rose would pound on the door, or scream for help, staff members said, and once her hand was slammed in the doorjamb while being locked inside.

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:

  • Among the recent instances that have attracted attention: Children in Middletown, Conn., told their parents that there was a “scream room” in their school where they could hear other children who had been locked away; last December, Sandra Baker of Harrodsburg, Ky., found her fourth-grade son, Christopher, who had misbehaved, stuffed inside a duffel bag, its drawstrings pulled tight, and left outside his classroom. He was “thrown in the hall like trash,” she told me. And in April, Corey Foster, a 16-year-old with learning disabilities, died on a school basketball court in Yonkers, N.Y., as four staff members restrained him following a confrontation during a game. The medical examiner ruled early last month that the death was from cardiac arrest resulting from the student’s having an enlarged heart, and no charges were filed.

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:

  • We have to respect that for some families, the decision to speak out about their child’s mistreatment is not a decision at all – the risk is too great.
  •  Understanding that some families are not in a position to speak out publicly means that we need to provide safe forums for them to be able to engage with others and share their stories in a way that will not incriminate them in their local school settings.
  •  It also means that for families who are ready, there needs to be a forum for them to speak out publicly.
  • Neither approach for families is better or worse. We must have just as much respect and support for families who make the calculated decision not to speak out as we do for those who choose to do so. The point is that there needs to be a forum for both.
  • We have to work much, much harder to advocate for more training for teachers on how to work with students with disruptive behavior. As a given, families who have children with serious emotional challenges need to be involved in the development and design of such training.

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:

  • “The critical outcome of this situation in Lexington and elsewhere needs to be that parents must have a voice and in situations like this, which involve reports of abuse or questions about the treatment of our children in schools, that the facts must be transparently pursued and made known to all.

    After having signed a confidentiality agreement when we settled our case that says, among other things, that we wouldn’t talk to the press, I gave this situation a lot of thought last summer, especially in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky case. The takeaway in the Sandusky case for me was ‘if you’re an adult, and you know of child abuse, you have a responsibility first and foremost to speak up.’ The fact that in my daughter’s case, we were told that other children had been involved, and we were not aware of any investigation by the school or others about what happened to my daughter, or whether their parents were ever told about their kids, haunted me for years.

    I think we are past the time when we can ask “will the way kids with special needs are treated ever change?” and instead the question now must be, “how soon will change come to the way kids with special needs are treated?” Every parent, every voice, every vote, every comment to a friend or neighbor, is making this change happen.  And there is nothing more powerful than simply telling your story.  It’s empowering for parents, and, in turn, it lets others know they are not alone.”

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.”

  • Network faithful, this is one topic that you would do well to educate yourself on. Kids are being traumatized and that is a bottom-line that none of us want, regardless of whether you are a teacher, provider or family member.

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

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