A chilling article from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution crossed my desk yesterday. It’s about Jonathan King, 13 (right), a boy with ADHD who hung himself in a “time-out” room in an Atlanta, Georgia public school for students with behaviour problems.
Georgia is one of 19 states that do not regulate restraint and seclusion in schools, and don't have to report when and why they use them.
Following an investigation into their son’s death, Jonathan’s parents were shocked to learn that “time-out” meant confinement in an 8 by 8 concrete-block room where he spent hours alone, with no windows, furniture, bathroom, food or water. In a 29-day period in 2004, Jonathan was placed there 19 times, for an average of 1 ½ hours, and as long as 7 ½ hours. The Alpine School – which serves children with behaviour issues related to emotional disturbance, autism and brain injury – never told his parents about the seclusion, because they didn’t have to.
Although Jonathan had threatened suicide twice, school staff placed him in the room with a rope he had been told to wear because he didn’t have a belt. He used it to hang himself.
As a parent, I had my own experience with the unreported use of restraints at an Ontario school for children with physical disabilities 11 years ago.
My son Ben was in junior kindergarten. Most of the kids were bussed to school, but I drove Ben. I noticed another student was often put in a wooden seat with straps that came up and over her hips. The chair was designed for kids with poor motor control who couldn’t sit unsupported.
However, this child had no trouble sitting – in fact, the opposite. She was hyperactive and the chair was used to restrain her.
One day I went to pick Ben up at lunch and the kids were sitting in the class after lunch watching Barney. This girl was tied into the chair, thrashing around and sobbing. “Is she all right?” I asked the teacher. “It helps her to calm down,” she said. I left with a sick feeling in my gut.
I was horrified to walk into the class a few weeks later and find Ben sitting at an activity table in the same wooden chair.
When he saw me and tried to stand up, the hip straps pulled him back down.
I could feel the press of them against his legs. I was speechless, my eyes stung and I could hardly see straight.
"The children were told to go to one activity table and stay there, but Ben didn't listen," the teacher explained. "He kept moving from one table to the next." She undid the straps to release him. "We didn't want to give him a time out because then he'd miss out on the art project."
Is this what my son had been reduced to? A child who was tied to his chair? He was four years old. What if I hadn't walked in then?
Ben can’t tell me. Ben can’t speak.
“This must never happen again,” I said slowly, grabbing Ben and leaving. I put him in his car seat and sat in the front of the car and sobbed. Is my son so terrible that he must be tied to a chair?
Ben was swatting at his ears, a tell-tale sign of his recurrent ear infections.
Instead of driving home, I drove to our pediatrician. Sure enough, Ben had two roaring ear infections. I was too ashamed to tell the doctor that I found my son tied to a chair.
The next morning I kept Ben home.
I called the principal about the incident and he apologized, said it shouldn’t have happened and that he would talk with the teachers right away.
“Does the school have a written policy about the use of restraints?” I asked.
Putting a child in that chair is no different than giving a child a time out, he said.
“Yes, it is different,” I said. “The straps prevent him from moving, from standing up.”
The principal talked about a school he worked in where they had large kids with severe behaviour problems and had to “physically take them down” to the floor. In his mind, this was small potatoes.
“What about the blonde girl in the class?” I ask. “Do her parents know she’s regularly put in that chair to struggle and sob? What kind of message are we sending to the other kids about how to treat people?”
“The parents know about the chair and are in full agreement with its use,” he said. “She's hyperactive and there aren't enough adults in the room to ensure that she isn't a danger to herself or the other kids.”
“Lots of kids are hyperactive and they don't get tied to a chair,” I said. “Can you imagine if this happened in a regular school with a child with ADHD? Can you imagine a parent walking into their neighbourhood school and finding their child tied to the chair?”
“This wouldn’t happen in a regular school because a hyperactive child would have an assistant,” he said, “whose primary focus was to ensure their safety."
In other words, the thought of tying a kid to a chair isn't in the realm of the possible for a more "normal" child.
“Do the teachers document every time they put her in the chair?”
“How do I know that this won't happen to Ben again? Ben can't speak, he can't tell me when something bad happens.”
The principal assured me it would never happen again, and we moved Ben to a different school at the end of the year.
I assumed things had changed in the ensuing years, so I was surprised to go online today and find a 2006 resolution by the Ontario Minister’s Advisory Council on Special Education calling for the Ministry of Education to develop a provincial policy that outlines accountability, training, reporting and use of physical restraints as a last resort in schools. It notes: “There is no existing policy with respect to…use of restraints, resulting in widely inconsistent or non-existent policies across the province.”
I just spoke to Alison Morse, a parent member of the Minister's Advisory Council on Special Education, and she told me they hadn’t been able to make headway on a Ministry policy.
It’s been 11 years since my 4-year-old son was strapped – unbeknownst to me – into a chair so he couldn’t stand up. Had I arrived a little later, would the teachers have told me that they put him in the chair? They weren’t obligated to.
How can regulating the use and reporting of restraints and seclusion in schools not be a priority in every jurisdiction in North America?
Of schools like the one where Jonathan King died, an Atlanta lawyer in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution article says: “They’re essentially lawless.”