Any parents who controlled or disciplined their children by tying them up could expect to be visited by child welfare authorities and police. Yet mechanical restraints have long been commonly employed in Connecticut’s public schools and its juvenile court.
The legislature has an opportunity this session to protect our children’s safety and dignity through bills that would limit this practice in our educational and juvenile justice systems.
There are more than 30,000 incidents of restraint and seclusion reported in Connecticut’s public schools every year involving 2,500 students. For many students, this indignity is something that happens at school time and again.
Let’s be clear on our terms: Restraint is not simply holding a child still for a moment. It is the use of a mechanical device that limits movement, sometimes dangerously. Seclusion is much more than a time out. It involves keeping a child in a confined space, quite often a converted closet, for an extended period.
Over the past three years, more than 1,300 incidents of injury arising from restraint and seclusion have been reported to the state Department of Education. More than two dozen of these incidents resulted in injuries categorized as “serious.”
This happens to children as early as preschool. Students with behavioral health issues are most at risk for seclusion and restraint.
Nationally, the restraint and seclusion in school of children with autism is so common that the federal Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) issued a public letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on the topic, saying that “utilization of restraint or seclusion should be viewed as a treatment failure that exacerbates behavioral challenges and induces additional trauma.”
The state Office of the Child Advocate issued a report this year citing “significant concern regarding the frequency with which young children with disabilities were restrained or secluded … Significant concern is also raised regarding the spaces used for seclusion, which have included utility closets, storage closets, and cell-like spaces.”
The physical harm done by these practices is well documented. So is emotional and psychological harm. One of the most shocking things about restraint and seclusion in our schools is that it so frequently happens to children who are already vulnerable. The same could be said for children in the juvenile justice system.
Rates of mental illness and trauma are high among youth who enter the juvenile justice system. This is one reason why the Child Welfare League of America recently issued a policy statement calling for the end of indiscriminate shackling in juvenile court. Like most states, Connecticut has no laws on the book limiting the practice.
Media reports earlier this year revealed that 75 percent of youth in custody in our state’s juvenile courts were wearing some kind of restraint: leg irons, belly chains, handcuffs, or all of these.
To its credit, the Judicial Branch acted on this information and changed its policy to further limit shackling. That positive development proves, however, that policies can be quickly altered.
The legislature should provide ongoing protection for Connecticut’s children – most of whom come to court charged with minor, non-violent crimes – by passing a bill that would limit shackling to the rare child who poses a flight or safety risk. States that have passed such measures have found that their juvenile courts continue to run smoothly and safely.
Similarly, a bill before the legislature would limit the use of restraints and seclusion in public schools to emergencies where there is a true risk of physical harm.
Research tells us that restraint and seclusion are harmful to children. Perhaps more importantly, we intuitively know this. No caring and competent parent would manage behavior by such means. We should expect no less from our schools or our courts.
Don Romoser is president of the Connecticut Parent Teacher Association.