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When Teachers Abuse Disabled Children

Three new reports highlight the widespread and corrosive effects of treating developmentally disabled children like criminals. These patterns of abuse bear most heavily on children of color.
disabled child abuse

(Photo: Eakachai Leesin/Shutterstock)

Every morning, I watch my son fail to comply with the rules. He’s a nine-year-old boy with Down syndrome and he rarely conforms to expectations. He’s not great at standing in line, so he either charges ahead to be first onto the bus (then lingers once inside, blocking everyone), or else waits until everyone else has boarded, and then has to be urged up the stairs. Once inside, he likes to talk to the bus driver, say hello to friends, and maybe dance in the aisle to the music in his head before finally choosing a seat. Rushing him doesn’t work. Yelling doesn’t work. Physically compelling him onto the bus just heightens resistance. What works is patience, understanding from authority figures and fellow classmates alike, and a lot of positive reinforcement. He’s learning to move more quickly, to follow rules, and to be safe.

My family is very privileged. We live in a nice suburb that we specifically selected based on the quality of its special education. Even so, we’ve had a problem or two, but no one in my son’s school has responded to his non-compliance by hurling him to the ground and pressing his face into the floor, handcuffing him, or threatening him with criminal charges.

Around the country, disabled children, especially those of color, are not so lucky.

Calm response to non-compliance is a necessary part of educating and caring for all children, but the importance of using positive reinforcement takes center stage in situations involving children with disabilities. Neither fear nor pain can force a child to be less disabled or to suddenly become neurotypical. Unfortunately, in many school districts and institutions, the use of restraint, seclusion, and, too often, pain and trauma, have become the default response to disabled children who don’t perfectly obey commands. American schools have become one site of a cult of compliance, a cult that penalizes disabled students most obviously, but in fact puts every child at risk.

Three independent reports on restraint and abuse of disabled children—from Florida, Massachusetts, and California, respectively—happened to be released almost simultaneously at the end of last week. They join a litany of other horror stories from 2015 that detail the systematic abuse of disabled children. While the circumstances differ, they coalesce around the same pattern—a refusal to tolerate even the most banal defiance.

These reports collectively reveal that too many people charged with protecting our most vulnerable students are failing to do their jobs.

Our nationwide circumnavigation of abuse stories begins with ProPublica’s report, “What Happened to Adam?” about an AdvoServ school in Florida. AdvoServ is a private for-profit school serving 700 disabled children and adults in three states. Heather Vogell, author of the ProPublica report, focuses on a young autistic man named Adam. He entered the school when he was 16, and, over seven years, was regularly restrained at Carlton Palms, AdvoServ’s biggest facility. Toward the end of his tenure there, he was restrained 44 times in just two months. His behavior deteriorated and his body bore the marks of painful devices and holds, finally alerting his mother to the situation. Lawsuits have followed.

Why did the staff at Carlton Palms restrain Adam so regularly? Vogell writes: “Some restraints occurred in response to what sounded like dangerous behavior.... But others hardly screamed emergency at all. One time, Adam refused to clean up Legos and ended up in mechanical restraints. He was put in them, too, for an incident that began with his smiling and throwing a toy across the room. His ankles were bound after he tossed a dinner bowl and broke it, and after he launched couch cushions across the room.” Even worse, Adam was not an anomaly. Vogell describes allegations contained within a series of lawsuits and criminal investigations, including a boy kicked in the head and choked, residents who were dragged across the floor, and one 14-year-old autistic girl who died. Her name was Paige Lunsford. She was non-verbal, bound to her bed by her hands and wrists as she vomited, day after day, until she died of dehydration in July of 2013. Denied communication devices, she couldn’t even ask for help.

The Miami Herald reports that the Department of Children and Family probe of Lunsford’s death was the 140th investigation of abuse or neglect at Carlton Palms. So far, though, nothing has been done, and both ProPublica and the Herald suggest that AdvoServ’s political donations may help shield it. The company has generally donated to Democrats in New Jersey and Delaware, and to Republicans in Florida. When Wellspring Capital, a private equity firm, bought AdvoServ last month, Wellspring’s press release touted “AdvoServ's historic accomplishments,” adding that “favorable industry dynamics present compelling opportunities to grow our business by caring for, and improving the lives of, more individuals in need.”

Wellspring refused to comment on the allegations for this piece.

It might be easy to focus just on AdvoServ as a bad private actor with political connections, but that would be a mistake. In Massachusetts, the abuse took place in the public school system. According to the Disability Law Center of Massachusetts, Peck School, in Holyoke, deployed dangerous prone restraints for disabled children on a near-constant basis. Prone restraints involve pressing an individual’s body to the ground, on their stomach. One adult can use body weight to hold the child down while grabbing the child’s arms and pinning them, or two adults can team up, one taking the arms and the other the legs. In all cases, prone restraint of children brings with it the risk of injury or even asphyxiation.

Staff at Peck School used the technique casually, to force compliance, despite mounting injuries. Restraint in such schools is often paired with forced seclusion. One teacher placed a child in a locked closet on three occasions and turned off the lights, leading to apparent psychological trauma. Many of Peck’s students specifically struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder; this kind of violence only exacerbates such conditions, even if the use of force grants teachers and staff temporary control. Again, there’s no reason to think Peck is unique. After teachers were caught forcing disabled students into padded closets, the state of Texas recently passed a law making it mandatory for schools to videotape all interactions between staff and disabled students. Video may help with accountability, but it would be better for teachers to stop shoving their students into closets.

The third report, from the Center for Public Integrity, details regular restraint, seclusion, and criminalization in the San Bernardino City Unified School District in California, including the restraint of a non-compliant 18-year-old Latino man with Down syndrome, who was subsequently arrested. This study emphasizes the rush to deposit children of color in the school-to-prison pipeline, an issue that the American Civil Liberties Union raised earlier this year as well—right now, the ACLU is helping three Kentucky families sue over the use of restraints on much younger children of color.

In August, the ACLU released a video that quickly went viral. It shows a slender eight-year-old boy with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder sobbing as he’s cuffed for “not listening.” The School Resource Officer tells the sobbing boy, "You can do what we asked you to, or you can suffer the consequences." Claudia Center, senior staff attorney of the ACLU's Disability Rights Program says: “If you crunch the numbers from the latest data [2011–12], students with disabilities are more than 20 times as likely as students without disabilities to be subjected to physical restraint at school,” including mechanical restraints such as handcuffs and shackles. In a case of multiplying marginalization, disabled children of color are vastly more likely to be restrained than disabled white students. We saw this play out in Virginia, with the arrest of Kayleb Moon-Robinson, a 12-year-old African-American autistic boy, who was charged with felony assault in a series of incidents that began with kicking a trashcan.

It shouldn’t be this way. While it’s reasonable to expect neurodiverse children and adults to learn to regulate their behavior to whatever extent is possible, punitive discipline is the worst way imaginable to achieve that goal. Barb Trader, the executive director of TASH, an advocacy organization that uses research to advocate for best practices in supporting people with significant disabilities, says that experts have long known how to support students with behavior difficulties. You don’t punish them; instead, you look beyond the incident of non-compliance for the cause. “There’s always a cause to a behavioral situation,” she says. Trader cited well-developed techniques such as “Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports” or “Trauma Informed Practices” that offer safer and more effective ways of reaching even the most challenging children.

This year, 2015, is the 25 anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. These reports collectively reveal that too many people charged with protecting our most vulnerable students are failing to do their jobs. In response, we must first hold the people responsible for the worst abuses liable in both criminal and civil courts. Second, we need to embrace this simple principle. Non-compliance, without other threat indicators, may not be used to justify restraint, seclusion, or force. After all, the cult of compliance can make people obey, often at great cost to physical and mental health, but no one can bully a disabled child into becoming neurotypical.