Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Restraining Special Needs Students-A Practice that Must Be Stopped

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The following blog post is from Samantha Huffman and was written in response to a recent article about a special needs student who was bound with duct tape during school.

Samantha is a former National Youth Activation Committee member and current senior, studying Elementary Education at Hanover College. Samantha has been a student leader in Project UNIFY for many years.

I recently went to a conference where a young man with cerebral palsy kept bringing up how we needed to focus on students with disabilities being tied down to chairs or restrained and/or harmed in some other way by educators. I kept thinking to myself how this wasn’t important because this would never be allowed to happen in a school in today’s society. I’m a senior Elementary Education major and never once in my four years of classes have we addressed the idea of restraining students because that’s just plain wrong, isn’t it? Well, apparently I was living in some kind of dream world and this young man at the conference was living in the real world.

Today I read one of the most terrifying and saddening stories. In Indianapolis, my hometown nonetheless, an 8-year old girl with Down syndrome came home on the bus with industrial duct tape wrapped around her shoes and socks, which went all the way to the top of her ankles. Shaylyn, the young girl, wasn’t even able to walk off the bus by herself because it hurt too much. After her mom carried her daughter off the bus, she immediately took her back to the school where she received help to remove the duct tape. The process took 30 minutes and left Shaylyn with bruises all over her ankles.

School is supposed to be a place where all children go to receive an education and this education is expected to be in a safe environment. When this safe environment is jeopardized, the entire education system begins to crumble.

How are students supposed to reach their full learning potential when they have to worry about the possibility of being harmed by their teacher? In Shaylyn’s case, it was something as simple as not wanting to wear shoes that caused her to be harmed. This was doing nothing to interfere with her education, yet one of her teachers decided to not only take away her learning time to focus on her shoes, but she also chose to restrain her.

This wasn’t just a one-time case. Currently there are 20 states that have no school policy against restraining students. That means, that at any given moment of the school day, those students have the possibility of being physically restrained by their teachers and there’s nothing that can be done because it isn’t against policy. How can this be possible in today’s world? Teachers can get fired for hitting a child, but it’s perfectly fine for them to tape a student’s shoes to her feet or tie a student to a chair? To me, these seem unequivalently harmful to students, both physically and emotionally, as being hit.

We have come so far with bullying campaigns, disability awareness, and other initiatives to accept diversity. But how can we expect students to view those with disabilities as equals when there are teachers who still dehumanize their students with disabilities? For every student we reach with our awareness campaign, there is a student out there who is turned away from accepting those with disabilities as equals because the teacher- a role model- is disrespecting and dehumanizing one.

In what world is it okay to physically restrain someone because he or she isn’t doing what you want them to do? It is not okay. Policies need to be created to protect all students, especially those with disabilities. And teachers that think it is okay to physically restrain disabled students need to find a new profession. Teachers are supposed to protect their students, build their self-esteem, and show them that they matter individuals. How is a teacher doing any of these things when he or she physically restrains students?  All those teachers are doing is showing their students that they have no power over what happens to them. All they are doing is showing them that they are less than human because their free will- their ability to move freely as they wish- can be taken away for something as simple as not wanting to wear shoes.

Luckily, most teachers aren’t like this. Most teachers are extremely successful in protecting their students, building their self-esteem, and showing them that they matter as people. They have the appropriate skills and training to manage the many behavior challenges they will experience in their classrooms. Unfortunately, many teachers are not given adequate training, instruction, and tools that would make this kind of act of desperation against a child an aberration.

Professional development and appropriate pre-service education for teachers is critical to ensure that we don’t fail our children.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.