In classrooms across America, students with special needs have quietly endured years of extensive physical and verbal abuse.
Faced with a rising number of incidents and an incriminating U.S. General Accounting Office investigative report on the abuse of special needs children, the house Committee on Education and Labor held a sobering hearing this spring designed to draw attention to a long-masked problem: the use of seclusion and restraints in public schools.
Instances where children are seriously injured—or, at times,killed—have long gone underreported, according to the Council of parent Attorneys and Advocates,Inc. In a two-month survey conducted just before the congressional hearings, the council reported 143 unique cases in which children with behavioral and physical disorders were subjected to aversive interventions.
But the problem may be more widespread than that. The U.S. has no reporting requirement for the amount of injuries caused by these actions, says the Congressional Research Service. Worse, there are no federal laws concerning the use of seclusion or restraints in America’s public schools.
“This is a dangerous issue that has gone unnoticed for far too long, and the consequences of that inaction are now beginning to show,”says Michael George, Director of Lehigh’s Centennial School.
“If we focus on the positive and develop a culture that is supportive, then there’s no telling what special education students can achieve, regardless of their disorder,” he says.
It has long been a refrain for George, who reiterated that message in investigative news reports conducted by CNN and, later,U.S. News and World Report. Those reports came out shortly after the congressional hearing, in which Centennial School was cited as a national model for creating a school environment that relies on positive supports. Recent studies by the national disability rights network and the American Institutes for research have also recognized Centennial’s commitment to positive behavioral interventions.
It wasn’t always that way. When George first took the helm of Centennial in 1998, physical restraints were common: 1,064 incidents were reported the year before he arrived. But just two years later, he and a committed team of educators had reduced that number to zero.
“It’s really a mindset,”he says. “You’re building an environment of trust that requires a new perspective. Instead of seeing the limitations of special needs children, all of us at Centennial create a culture that lets our students thrive.”