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Restraint in Schools and the Death of an Autistic Child

Restraint-and-seclusion policies continue to traumatize and endanger children and teens.
school lockers

On November 28th, Max Benson, a white autistic boy of 13 who attends the Guiding Hands school in El Dorado Hills, California, allegedly kicked a wall. A staff member decided to restrain the child by placing him on the ground, prone on his stomach, where, according to initial reports from his classmates, they held him for as long as an hour.

The school has pledged to cooperate fully with a pending investigation from the State Department of Education and possibly from law enforcement. We do know one thing: Max eventually became unresponsive. At first, according to witnesses, the staff told him to stop sleeping or pretending to sleep, but then they realized he was in medical crisis and rushed him to a hospital. He died two days later.

As Pacific Standard has reported, "restraint and seclusion"—a category of behavioral interventions for disabled children that is usually legal and (theoretically) tightly regulated by the Department of Education—causes physical harm to disabled children and adults in institutional and educational settings with alarming frequency. Deaths like the one in California are worst-case scenarios, but they are also just the tip of the iceberg. Less visible, but confirmed by many studies and first-person accounts, are the generations of children and teens being traumatized through these coercive practices. Restraint and seclusion are intended to serve as clearly defined protocols to respond to crises in ways that protect students and support their educational goals. Instead, all too frequently, they quickly turn into tools for punishment and control.

Organizations and individuals in many states have been trying to ban the practices in their schools. Legislation reducing their use has been stalled in Congress since 2011. The death of Benson in California suggests we still have a long way to go.

The details of Benson's death remain murky. Guiding Hands is a private school funded through public dollars to create a segregated or self-contained educational environment for disabled children. The sheriff's department initially reported that Benson was six feet tall, weighed over 280 pounds, and had "severe autism." Had these details been true, that would still not justify allowing a child to die. But they were false. In fact, Benson was 5'3" and between 170 and 200 pounds, according to his family and their attorney. We do not know what degree of support Benson required at school (a much better framing than referring to autism as "mild" or "severe"), but according to Seth Goldstein, the Benson family's attorney, Benson was "very verbal." While verbal communication doesn't preclude high support needs, it's at least an indicator of communication options beyond physical intervention.

We also have yet to learn what kind of restraint was deployed. Over the phone, Goldstein tells me that it appears that the staff placed Benson in "prone restraint," a notoriously dangerous method, and held him there for a long time until he lost consciousness. Goldstein also notes that other children witnessed the incident.

Another parent recently removed her son from Guiding Hands after witnessing him being restrained with a knee in his back for over 20 minutes. She told local news: "We left the meeting. I walked out, and I saw him restrained. He was on the ground, chest down, somebody with their knee in his back, with his face and his chest to the ground. It was very alarming and very upsetting, and I wasn't sure what to do." The mother, who gave her name as Laura K., claimed this practice was common at the institution, saying, "If you walked on the campus any given day, somebody was being held down."

In an initial statement to local media, a school spokesperson wrote: "In the rare instances in which de-escalation techniques are not effective, faculty and staff are trained in and utilize a recognized protocol for restraint." When asked for comment, an attorney employed by the school sent a long statement stressing that the school complies with the "safest internationally recognized physical restraint methods." Yet their protocols seem to have allowed a child to die.

The attorney declined to share the school's crisis intervention protocol with Pacific Standard, citing the need to protect the privacy of the dead child. An initial probe from the California Department of Education finds evidence that the school is violating state regulations around restraint and has suspended Guiding Hands' certification, meaning the school cannot accept new students at this time. The school remains open and its attorney tells me Guiding Hands has no plans to shut down.

Arlene Mayerson, directing attorney at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in California, says she thinks that restraint and seclusion practices in general should be eliminated except in an emergency situation. If a child was running into traffic, she says, whether they had a disability or not, you'd have to restrain them. "In a real emergency it makes sense, but it's very hard to monitor," especially in segregated schools like Guiding Hands, she says.

"Segregated schools increase the likelihood of abuse astronomically. We've learned in all kinds of institutional settings that abuse of the inmate is prevalent, and it's part and parcel of being segregated and out of sight." Mayerson says it's better to keep "the kids in their local school districts—get rid of these schools."

Sometimes students, disabled or not, need access to quiet spaces. Sometimes students, disabled or not, might lose control of their bodies and briefly endanger themselves or others. There are going to be rare emergencies in which staff have to stop kids from hurting someone, and all kinds of situations where allowing students to retreat into a safe isolated space might be optimal. The problem is that, as soon as authority figures are given permission to use the tools of seclusion and restraint, too often they use them to coerce rather than to protect. We're going to have to go beyond regulating these practices. We're going to have to abolish them except in the most rare circumstances.

It shouldn't take the death of a teenage boy to stop overuse of restraint in schools. But, given how ingrained such practices are in our educational systems, and the 120,000 kids experiencing restraint or seclusion each year, I'm worried this one death won't be enough.