I Was Shocked by The Use of Seclusion and Restraint in Michigan Schools by Brian Calley

Restraining and secluding children in schools only escalates problematic and dangerous behaviors and can cause serious injuries, emotional damage, or even death. Yet, in many schools throughout the United States, these inhumane practices are the default strategies inflicted on students with disabilities.

“Restraint” refers to the use of a device or physical force to restrict a child’s movement. “Seclusion” involves the forced isolation of students – solitary confinement in a closed space that can take the form of a soundproof padded room to a dark and dangerous closet. Sound cruel? Well, it is.

When I first heard about these tactics, I couldn’t believe it was true, but if so, perhaps it was a rare occurrence.

Despite schools’ stated intentions of protecting children from injury with these methods, programs utilizing restraint and seclusion significantly increase the likelihood of child and staff injury as well. In 2009, the United States Department of Health and Human Services issued a report emphasizing that the use of seclusion and restraint is dangerous and traumatic not only to the individuals subjected to these practices, but also for the staff implementing them.

Years ago, I had an unforgettable conversation with a colleague in the Michigan legislature who I knew to be the grandfather of a child with autism. Having a daughter with autism I  tried to seek out peers to join the work of making a better world for people with developmental disabilities. When I heard that he planned to oppose legislation banning restrain and seclusion, I pleaded with him to help me understand why. His response was immediate and callous, he said “Well, sometimes when people act like animals, they need to be treated like animals.”

As lieutenant governor, I was determined to improve Special Education services and decided to start with a listening tour, speaking with educators, administrators, parents, and students across the state. I heard repeatedly from parents about the trauma their children faced with the consistent use of restraint and seclusion, even as school administrators assured me that such tactics were rare and only used in emergencies.

Between a statewide parent survey and hours of testimony at the Special Education Listening Tour stops, it became clear that this was a national systemic problem. I developed a proposal to ban restraint and seclusion in non-emergency situations and found legislative allies to introduce the legislation. To garner enough votes to pass the ban, we had to drop penalties for non-compliance, but thankfully, the 2016 law did include reporting requirements. By requiring each use of restraint or seclusion be reported to the state, we would at least know just how prevalent it was.  The data confirmed our worst fears.

Records show that restraint and seclusion have been used in Michigan schools well more than 94,000 times, and since there are no penalties on schools for failing to report, this number is undoubtedly an undercount.  With that said, it is no surprise that developmental disabilities have the lowest academic performance of any student group population.

In situations of immediate danger to the student or others, temporary physical restraint may be necessary, however consistent use and normalization of these practices is long-lasting and profoundly harmful. When problematic behaviors arise and emergency restraint or seclusion is used, a functional behavior assessment should be conducted to understand the environmental factors that contributed to the behavior. Afterwards, the adults responsible for the education of that child should tailor a behavior plan specific to that child to identify and mitigate triggers, deescalate problems, avoid future explosive behaviors, and teach the student to cope with factors that cannot be changed.

Ideally, every school would have a board-certified Behavior Analyst on site to ensure evidence-based behavior practices are implemented.  This requires adequate resources and for all stakeholders to embrace the idea that every child deserves a safe environment in which to learn and reach their full potential.

Children with disabilities in Michigan, are among the most marginalized and excluded students. Instead of schools advocating for all students, this group of students are traumatized with seclusion and restraint.  As an increasingly vocal disability community demands their basic civil and human rights, the Autism Alliance of Michigan (AAoM), along with partners in the disability community, have joined the fight for equity and inclusion on every level including health care, employment, social acceptance and especially education.  At minimum, our children deserve to be treated humanely, but at its core, this issue is a civil rights issue.  On Saturday, April 22, AAoM will host a Michigan Shines for Autism Gala to place the needs of people with Autism front and center, where it belongs.

A former lieutenant governor of Michigan, Brian Calley is President and CEO of the Small Business Administration of Michigan and Vice Chair of the Autism Alliance of Michigan Board of Directors.