By Mary Hollowell
A State Advisory Panel for Special Education in Georgia, consisting mostly of educators who work for the state and mothers of students with disabilities, has rubber stamped guidance on the use of restraint and seclusion in schools. A copy of the guidelines can be found online at The Coalition for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports September 15th blog.
Twenty-two panel members met in a small conference room in Forsyth, Georgia, on January 23, 2009. The State Advisory Panel is mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and 51% of panel members must be parents of students with disabilities or have disabilities themselves. Many of the current members are new. In February 2008, a call was put forth for 9 new parent members or members with disabilities and 3 new teacher/administrators from across the state.
Panelists heard a series of painful public comments about restraint and seclusion, including written commentary from a registered nurse who warned that seclusion rooms “are potential egregious human rights violations.” They spent only thirty minutes, however, discussing the guidelines.
Attorney Leslie Lipson, a non-educator panelist from The Georgia Advocacy Office, pointed out that an affiliate of her organization, the National Disability Rights Network, is seeking “a blanket prohibition on restraint and seclusion, except in very limited cases.” She reminded the panel that U.S. Congressman George Miller (D-CA) is calling for a hearing on the issue.
Another panelist, Lori Brown, Director of Forensic Services Crimes Against Children Unit in the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office, also reminded the panel that the federal government was likely to intervene through legislation. In response to Brown, one school superintendent said, “We don’t want the legislature telling us what the guidelines are … We don’t need them telling us what to do.”
While a small voice called for more training in behavioral management in colleges of education, the discussion mostly went in circles around the physical restraint of students in order to calm them down. The elephant in the room was seclusion. A panelist did speak forcefully against seclusion but the administrators in the room wanted to retain their rights to restrain and seclude, citing examples of specific students. One mother did talk about the benefits of seclusion on a sofa inside a principal’s office but a sofa is a far cry from a small, dark, solitary confinement cell that is double-bolted on the outside.
It is hardly surprising that members of an advisory panel, who are educators, do not want to bite the hand that feeds them, which is the Georgia Department of Education. It is also not surprising that mothers on the panel, many of whom are new members, are afraid to speak up. Children who have suffered from restraint and seclusion in schools are not isolated cases, but their parents’ heartbreaking stories have met deaf ears. Parents’ and advocates’ only recourse, now, appears to be legislation that bans abusive restraint and seclusion in schools.
Anguished parent voices from across the nation, in blog comments and hard-hitting television news, are more than just a groundswell. They are a tidal wave. The injuries, deaths, and lawsuits due to abusive behavior in schools have reached a peak, and federal legislators such as Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Congressman George Miller (D-CA) have heard the cries. The wave will sweep the Georgia Department of Education off its feet.
Mary Hollowell is an associate professor of education at Clayton State University in Morrow, Georgia. Her book The Forgotten Room, to be published later this year with Lexington Books, is an ethnographic case study of a public alternative school.