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Better understanding students with disabilities, mental illness

Better understanding students with disabilities, mental illness

Picture of Jane  Adams
Michael Ashline, left, and his son Andrew, a special needs student in Orange, Calif.
Michael Ashline, left, and his son Andrew, a special needs student in Orange, Calif.

I couldn’t argue with the statement the director of a private special education school company made to me: “You don’t understand.”

He was talking about a girl (he didn't state her age) who had the catch-all diagnosis of “emotional disturbance.” At school, she had bitten the finger of an aide to the bone and held on for 15 minutes. That kind of violence, he said, is why some students in special education have to be restrained.

He was right – how could I understand, given how little I knew? All behavior, the experts I interviewed told me, is communication. I wanted the backstory of why the girl bit the staff member and whether she had a way to express herself, or was receiving mental health treatment. I wanted to know more about who the staff were, their stress levels and their training.

But I also took note of the implication, intended or not, behind the statement "You don't understand," which suggested that some students with autism, mental illness or intellectual disabilities are so out of control, so "other," that schools have no choice but to consistently revert to extreme measures. If this were true, I wanted to see the evidence.

My task as a reporter was to look at how often and why California teachers of students with emotional, physical or intellectual disabilities were declaring "behavioral emergencies," which allow them to physically restrain or isolate students in rooms they can't leave. Under state education code, a behavioral emergency must be a true emergency, where students and staff are at risk of serious harm. But the practice of restraint and seclusion in California is by and large unmonitored by the state and the school districts. And because it is used on special education students, most parents and teachers don't know about it.

Through public records requests, EdSource Today obtained more than 700 behavioral emergency reports from California school districts. Most of the reports were handwritten chronicles, written by staff, of classroom management run amuck.

A student with non-verbal autism was physically held in his seat to watch a movie he found frightening, because he had to comply with what others were doing. An elementary student was threatened with restraint if he didn't get down from a desk. Another elementary student was restrained 57 times in one school year, held facedown on the floor by four staff members for as long as 57 minutes at a time. The reports included stick-figure drawings of staff pinning students to the floor by their arms and legs. One restraint report included a glimpse of gallows humor: The student wants to watch The Passion of the Christ because he says that's what's happening to him.

As stories of failed interventions, the reports -- along with dozens of interviews with parents, administrators and teachers -- documented the poor job that many schools are doing in understanding and managing autism, mental illness and behavior disorders in children. At some schools, a lack of staff training and incorrect student placement were thwarting the best efforts of caring, hard-working teachers and aides. Some reports showed staff trying multiple interventions -- talking, debriefing, talking some more, cooling off periods -- only to have students punch them, leading to physical restraint. So much missed communication and understanding.

And as for evidence that restraint and seclusion were necessary practices, researchers told me it didn't exist -- they said there are no studies that restraint and seclusion improve school safety, reduce injuries or change student behavior.

Most compelling for me in the series on restraint in seclusion were my interviews with special education teachers and administrators who didn't view their students as "other" but described them as kids with likes and dislikes, family problems and favorite pets. One principal of a special education school in Southern California eliminated seclusion rooms on campus because the students, she said, had had enough trauma in their lives. She didn't back down when some teachers protested; instead, she let those teachers quit.


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