Children with Disabilities Abused in Public School Classrooms

Parents have worked for decades to get their children with disabilities mainstreamed into public school systems and to avoid placing them in institutionalized settings. Now these parents are finding out that their children are being increasingly abused in public systems, according to a report in the New York Times, July 15. Teachers and administrators are using controls such as restraints, isolation rooms, straps, and manhandling – exactly the ones parents feared private institutions would use.

In the past ten years, over 600,000 more children have enrolled in special education classes in public schools. There are no federal regulations, so oversight is left up to the states. Many teachers lack the training to handle children with autism, Attention Deficit Disorder, bipolar disorder, Asperger Syndrome, oppositional defiant disorder and other conditions. Many of these children have dual diagnoses that include mental disorders along with learning disabilities and/or mental retardation.

According to reporter Benedict Carey, who conducted dozens of interviews for this article, more parents are filing lawsuits and complaints against public schools regarding the excess use of force on children with disabilities.

“In all the years I went to school, I never, ever saw or heard of anything like the horrific stories about restraint that we see just about every day now,” said Alison Tepper Singer, executive vice president of Autism Speaks.

The Times reports that children with disabilities are being taken to police stations in handcuffs, held down on the floor in restraints, and sent to isolation rooms for hours. Dr. and Mrs. John Miller, a New York couple, are suing their school system for severely disciplining their son with Asperger Syndrome. For example, several teachers would hold him prone on the floor for twenty minutes at a time. The worst cases are the three autistic children who died this year in schools in Montreal and Michigan, while being “restrained.”

“Behavior problems in school are way up, and there’s good reason to believe that the use of these procedures is up, too,” said Dr. Reece L. Peterson, a professor of special education at the University of Nebraska. “It’s an awful combination.”

He and others point out that teachers are responsible for a classroom that may contain 30 to 35 students, and often lack the training to handle a child with disabilities.

“The teacher is responsible for the safety of all the children in the classroom,” according to Patti Ralabate, an expert on special education with the National Education Association. “There’s a huge question of how much safety or teaching a teacher can provide if he or she is being called on to calm or contain a student on a regular basis.”