By Madeline Peare, a Summer 2012 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern
When my brother was a freshman in high school, he was forced to remain in a storage closet for an entire day. My family and I were shocked to hear about this from his teacher later that night because we were not informed that the school would punish him in such an extreme manner.
My brother, Garrison, has Down syndrome, a developmental disability that causes him to have some behavior issues. When I found out what had happened to him that day, I thought this was a rare occurrence, even for students with special needs. I was wrong.
I was upset to find out how many students have experienced what Garrison had. I was even more upset to find out that putting a child in seclusion for an entire day is legal in many states. Fortunately, Sen. Tom Harkin, D. Iowa, is doing something to stop this.
Harkin has introduced S. 2020, the Keeping All Students Safe Act, which protects children from the use of restraint and seclusion but allows teachers and staff to use restraint in emergency situations. On July 12, 2012, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) held a hearing that reviewed a plethora of evidence to show how restraint and seclusion are ineffective at managing a student’s behavioral problems. The testimonies also provided a significant amount of evidence demonstrating the benefits of positive reinforcement.
Restraint and seclusion are commonly used in schools as a means of dealing with students who misbehave. Many believe that this is the only way to manage a student’s difficult behavior. However, these practices are cruel and do not actually improve a student’s behavior in the long run. In fact, physical restraints can sometimes cause severe harm to a child. In one case, a 16-year-old boy refused to leave his high school basketball game and was restrained by six adults. He could not breathe, went into cardiac arrest, and later died. There have also been incidents where students who were locked in a room alone harmed themselves or took their own lives. This is completely unacceptable and clearly does not help the child in the least.
Furthermore, minorities and students with disabilities are disproportionately subjected to restraint. African-American and Latino students are held down or locked in a room alone twice as often as other students, and 70 percent of all restraints involved students with disabilities.
Although many teachers, staff, and administrators believe that restraint and seclusion are the only ways to deal with students’ improper behavior, this is not the case. Witnesses at the hearing supported positive reinforcement as a more effective method to decrease the number of outbursts and teach students appropriate behavior. Debbie Jackson, whose son, Elijah, has severe behavioral problems, testified that he improved dramatically after he went to the Centennial School in Pennsylvania. At the Centennial School, Elijah received positive reinforcement and was never restrained. As a result, he was able to effectively transition into a local public school after two and a half years.
My brother Garrison is further proof that positive reinforcement works. After discovering that he had been put into seclusion for an entire day, my parents took him out of public school. The school district was clearly not addressing his behavioral issues and seclusion was not a good solution. He is now at a private school for students with developmental disabilities and is doing very well. His teachers understand the importance of positive reinforcement, and as a result his behavior is significantly better.