A Brief History Of Restraint and Seclusion In Our Schools

Stemming from practices deemed appropriate in another era, restraint and seclusion had their origins as “therapeutic” responses to anything not conforming to expected and desired behavior in mental patients. The restraint of supposedly violent patients and the isolation of uncooperative, noncompliant residents in mental hospitals were common approaches to managing challenging cases. Behavioral science concepts have often shaped policies and practices that are then adopted by schools, for better or worse.

In the case of these two profoundly disturbing practices, schools taking the lead from their parallel peers in Psychiatry has been for the worse.

For many generations, our most vulnerable children ~ children who are often labeled as having “special needs ~ the disabled, the Autistic (especially nonverbal or nonspeaking Autistics), the developmentally delayed ~ have been subject to terrifying violations of their most fundamental human rights in the form of being aggressively restrained and placed in isolation, often for no other reason than their natural way of being challenged their adult teachers or caretakers and for no other cause than their needs going unrecognized and, therefore, unmet.

According to child and parent testimonies, photos included in childrens’ school journals, reports from teachers, minutes from Administrative meetings, and eyewitness reports from other children, the types of restraints used have included, but are not limited to: rope, cables, duct tape over limbs and mouths, gags (storebought or improvised), the child’s own belt or tie or sash, electronic appliance cables and cords, along with a variety of other materials.

According to child and parent testimonies, photos included in childrens’ school journals, reports from teachers, minutes from Administrative meetings, and eyewitness reports from other children, seclusion spaces in schools have taken the form of locked windowless rooms, wooden crates placed in a corner of the classroom, completely darkened broom closets which have been locked from the outside, foot lockers, large band instrument cases, and other unthinkable spaces of containment. Secluded, isolated children are often not allowed access to a bathroom and are just as often denied access to food and water while they are being “treated”/punished.

These unimaginable methods of addressing “behavioral issues” or what is labeled as “noncompliant/defiant behavior” are, when viewed by any dispassionate eye in the cold light of day, abuse. We do not allow criminals in prison to be treated this way. In most nations, there are laws protecting incarcerated individuals from human rights abuses and there are many pieces of legislation that spell out, quite clearly, how emprisoned persons are to be related to, right down to how many meals a day they are guaranteed and how much access to natural light they are to have. We have no such laws, anywhere, protecting vulnerable children who are labeled with “special needs” when they are in school.

When you read the lists above describing the practices of restraint and seclusion, you might think that those lists are made up of actions that were common decades ago. Sadly, that is not the case. All of the practices described come from recent and current reports, testimonies, and news headlines. The methods came from archaic and destructive models of psychiatric “care”; a dark ages for clinical “therapy” informing public school policy because our “special needs”‘ children were (and are deemed) as “unruly”, as “untamed”, as “deviant”, and as “less human” than their peers, by default.

This is a global crisis. The use of restraints and the practice of secluding children for so-called “behavioral” issues happen in nearly every country.

The children being abused in these ways are not, contrary to what school Administrators would have you believe, deserving in any way of these dreadful violations upon their bodies and minds. The “behaviors” that they exhibit are often reactions to being overstimulated, overwhelmed, denied their basic needs, and not being heard when they try to comply or advocate for themselves. Sensory triggers, bodily needs, grounding and coping techniques such as stimming, lighting conditions, ambient noise, the actions and behavior of their peers, the success or failure of the adults to communicate effectively with them… all of these things and more can cause the child to express in ways that are misinterpreted as “tantrums”, “resistance”, “refusal”, or some other undesireable and punishable offense.

Once we understand this and add such an understanding to our examination of restraint and seclusion, we begin to comprehend just how tortuous these practices are. Children in meltdown are stressed, in crisis, afraid, and any meaningful attempt to come back to a baseline of regulated emotions and exectutive function would be hard enough with the proper supports and supportive presences in place… to expect a child already in crisis, who is forcibly restrained as a result of their exhibiting being in crisis, or who is shut away in a confined space and ignored until they “agree to comply” (i.e. are broken), to be unharmed is simply the height of cognitive dissonance and arrogance.

The practices are forms of abuse. This should be recognized as an undeniable fact.

These are practices being used on children. Children are not adult mental health patients. Disabled, Autistic, and developmentally delayed children are not often capable of adocating for themselves and many of them are of an age where they cannot effectively withdraw consent to being touched by adults nor being confined like an animal.

While restraints are effective and appropriate for *some* adult mental health patients with truly violent and dangerous tendencies, they ought *never* be accepted as appropriate for children. The frequency of injury, trauma, and even death that has taken place as a result of forcible restraint of children in a school setting should be our signal to aggressive action against such a practice ever being allowed in our places of education.

Isolation of adult patients in mental health facilities *is* sometimes necessary, for the safety and well-being of the individual and/or the staff/their fellow patients. Isolating a child, under lock and key, often without access to meeting basic bodily needs, sometimes in terrifying imrovised confines, should *never* be an option for responding to any kind of expression from the child. We should speak out against this practice until we are mute from the effort to be heard.

The inhumane methods of restraint and seclusion came from an ignorant time. Those methods followed what has been the organic flow of policy from mental institutions to prisons and from prisons to schools. When will we dam up that flow? The answer should have been yesterday.

We can dam it up, now.

And we must.



The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act from The Department of Education Website

The Use Of Seclusion and Restraint In Public Schools: The Legal Issues by Nancy Lee Jones and Jody Feder; 2010; FAS dot org  

From Madhouse to Schoolhouse: Forcible Restraint and Isolation In Practice by Emmery Bostwick; 2012; Harvard Press