My father has stories about his days in Catholic grade school when the nuns would hit him with rulers or whatever was nearby if he acted anything less than an angel. It's that kind of stuff that you think would never happen today. But writer Bill Lichtenstein opened my eyes to one of my biggest fears happening in today's overcrowded public schools. It's not hitting or spanking (in this case) -- it's the use of restraints and seclusion rooms. Like solitary confinement. And it's considered acceptable.
Lichtenstein's daughter is just 5 years old, and for three months for up to an hour each time, she was kept in a seclusion room without her parents' knowledge. When they found out, it was stopped but not without lasting trauma for the little girl. The school, apparently, thought this was okay.
Schools are supposed to be educational, right? Not places of torture. Not even places where a 4-year-old child should be forced to undergo a double root canal without a parent's permission. Every day I learn more and more how these things DO happen. It's a harsh reminder that I can't always trust my kids are being taken care of properly when I'm not around. And it makes me want to homeschool.
Many of these students being restrained or put in rooms alone have special needs, and the Department of Education reports that of the almost 40,000 students who were placed in isolation or restrained during the 2009-2010 school year had learning, behavioral, physical, or development needs despite the fact that special needs kids make up 12 percent of the student body. Also unjustly punished in such a manner were African-American and Hispanic students.
Lichtenstein learned from Clemson University teacher and expert on this type of discipline Joseph Ryan that as more kids with special needs are place in inclusion classes in public schools, the practice of isolation and restraint came with it. When I read that Ryan said, "It’s a quick way to respond but it’s not effective in changing behaviors," my heart sank. Why is this allowed? Each state has a law on the books on how student can be disciplined (do you know yours? 19 states still allow spanking), but there are also no federal laws cracking down on things that shouldn't be done. I've read of a school nurse forcibly stripping and washing a child and an autistic 9-year-old stuffed in a duffel bag by his special ed teacher as punishment for not listening to the teacher's aide.
Children do not deserve these types of horrific treatment even if they are bad in school. There is nothing to learn from this punishment except fear. This is something no parent should have to face. But Lichtenstein faced it when his then-kindergartner Rose was locked in a closet five times in one morning, a practice that had happened for about three months before he found out. He wrote in the NYTimes:
At school, her mother and I found Rose standing alone on the cement floor of a basement mop closet, illuminated by a single light bulb. There was nothing in the closet for a child — no chair, no books, no crayons, nothing but our daughter standing naked in a pool of urine, looking frightened as she tried to cover herself with her hands. On the floor lay her favorite purple-striped Hanna Andersson outfit and panties.
The family tried to get the Lexington Public School system, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, and the Department of Mental Health to investigate but they didn't. Their daughter has severe stress and nightmares from the punishments, and after an action was brought against the school, a settlement was reached after they agreed to pay for Rose's trauma treatment.
It's been a few years since that and Rose is back in public school. She said of those who punished her: "They weren’t bad people. They just didn’t know about working with children."
I love Rose's outlook, but I'm filled with worry. Why do people who don't understand how to work with children become teachers, school nurses, public school administrators? How can we as parents make sure this isn't happening in our schools? What about the non-verbal kids with special needs? How can any parent trust a school after hearing about this?
Image via cogdogblog/Flickr