Press article | News | Media


Joce Sterman, Alex Brauer and Andrea Nejman


Spotlight on America

More than 100,000 students in a single school year have been subjected to a controversial set of practices known as isolation and restraint, where children are isolated in special rooms, according to the Department for Education. or attached in some scenarios. As calls to ban these practices grow, Congress is again trying to pass legislation it says will protect students, especially those with disabilities who are disproportionately affected.

Kristi Kimmel slowly watches her 14-year-old son Zeke walk away from the happy boy she once knew. Diagnosed at an early age with autism, Zeke had faced challenges. But Kimmel says he loved school and mastered more than 20 words.

In 2018 however, she says he began a devastating decline. Zeke started hurting himself in class and stopped talking altogether, with the boy not even being able to call him “Mom” anymore.

“It’s been an absolute nightmare. It’s heartbreaking. He, at the worst of it all, had lost so much weight that he was down to 65 pounds and was skinny,” the Maryland mom tells us. “He had fought and there was no connection. I was looking him in the eye and nothing was looking at me.”

Kimmel told us she can trace the beginning of the decline to another significant event: Zeke’s start at a new school in Maryland. Shortly after starting, he was repeatedly subjected to solitary confinement and restraint, which a Spotlight on the US investigation found are used on thousands of children nationwide, resulting in injury and death.

I am absolutely shocked that we continue to practice these practices. I mean, it’s honestly barbaric,” said Kristi Kimmel, the mother of a student with special needs who was repeatedly isolated and restrained.

Kimmel provided Spotlight on America with page after page of documents showing that Zeke was isolated multiple times at school, sometimes up to 12 times a day.

Although the Department for Education has said seclusion and restraint should only be used “if a child’s behavior presents an imminent danger of serious physical harm” to themselves or others, records show that Zeke was often singled out for simple acts like pinching or grabbing.

After reports detailing the use of these practices were sent home, Kimmel contacted the school. “I called first and said, ‘You know, what’s going on? This has never happened to him before. “Well, that’s how we do it here. You have to trust our process. It’s our policy and he may have a hard time transitioning.” Then something inside of me said, ‘You gotta keep questioning that,'” she told us.

Kimmel continued to question, with the Justice Department eventually launching an investigation in 2020. The district involved reached an agreement with the DOJagreeing to stop isolating students and updating its restraint policies.

This decision affected only one district in one state. But, there have been calls for broader action related to the use of these practices in schools across the country.

A Analysis 2019 seclusion and restraint laws written by researcher Jessica Butler uncovered a patchwork of regulations across the country regarding why and when students can be restrained or segregated, and how these incidents are reported to parents and caregivers. the state.

Butler’s research found that while 30 states have meaningful protections against these practices, only a few have outright prohibitions against solitary confinement. It’s something Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., wants to change.

We know this is a serious problem. We know that children are harmed with the strategy. We know there are much better ways to modify behavior. So let’s do it,” Scott said.

Scott, who chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor, again proposes a federal bill, the Safety for All Students Actwhich would completely ban isolation in American schools as well as certain types of restraint.

But similar legislation has repeatedly failed on Capitol Hill. This time around, there is a related bill in the Senate, but an audit of the two pieces of legislation on shows that there is not a single Republican among the dozens of co-sponsors in either body of Congress.

We asked Scott how sponsors can reach across the aisle to gain Republican support for the bill. He told us, “I think when you look at the research, it shows that it’s counterproductive. And if you stick to the facts, the research, the evidence, you’ll find that it’s a bad strategy that hurts students. . And unless you want to hurt the students, you’d be interested in getting rid of isolation and coercion.

Some Republicans say the interest is to protect states’ rights and give local districts the power to make their own decisions. This view is reflected in statements made by lawmakers during a recent House hearing that included testimony on seclusion and restraint.

Proponents of these practices also say they are necessary to protect teachers and staff in certain scenarios, pointing to threats and real incidents of harm.

In early March, a Florida teacher in her 30s had to be hospitalized after police say she was attacked by a 5-year-old student with special needs who was being isolated.

In a 911 call obtained by Spotlight on America, the caller told the dispatcher, “This teacher was hit in the head and she vomited right after. She was assaulted by a student.”

Yet top education officials have long argued that these practices are not effective in stopping problem behaviors. In 2012, Arne Duncan, then Education Secretary, said in a report“there is still no evidence that the use of restraint or seclusion is effective in reducing the onset of the problematic behaviors that frequently precipitate the use of such techniques.”

And 10 years later, running Education Secretary Miguel Cardona suggested at a conference in February that teachers need better tools.

We have to recognize that when these events of restraint and isolation occur, it creates trauma,” Cardona said. We need to change this mindset.

Spotlight on America has reached the School Principals Associationthe American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association ask for their position on these practices. None of the organizations provided their position on this issue.

But parents like Kristi Kimmel, whose children have been isolated and restrained, say it’s time to end the use of these tactics. She knows firsthand that they can have a profound impact, leaving behind the kind of emotional scars her son Zeke is still trying to mend.

Although her son has improved, Kimmel says she’s looking forward to the day when he calls her “Mom” again.

I’d love it. I really would. There’s just something about your child looking at you and saying “Mom.” It’s in there. It’s just going to take time, I think,” she said.