by India Ochs
Content warning: This blog post and the embedded links include references to restraint and seclusion.
Silence can impact all of us: our relationships, learning, and employment. Yet being placed in a setting of forced silence or being denied access to communication has the harshest consequences for those of us unable to speak in a way that is intelligible to others.
That is why it’s crucial that we urge Congress to pass The Keeping All Students Safe Act (KASSA) (S. 1858 and H.R. 3474), a bill that would make it illegal for any school receiving federal funds to seclude students. Seclusion is the act of placing a student alone in a room or area from which they are physically prevented from leaving. Right now, there is no federal limit on how long such isolation can occur. KASSA would also ban mechanical, chemical, and supine restraints, as well as practices that restrict breathing, including prone restraint. KASSA would also make it illegal to physically restrain – or restrict the movement of – a student if their disability or education plan indicates it would be harmful to them.
Can I emphasize “crucial”? Passing KASSA would be pivotal, critical, key, decisive, deciding, determining, major, significant, influential, momentous, consequential, weighty, big, important, historic, epoch-making, far-reaching, and life-and-death.
You only need to listen to a firsthand description of a disabled person being restrained in CommunicationFIRST’s five-minute short film LISTEN, or read about an Autistic Black 4th grader who had an officer hold her face to the ground with his knee to her back, to understand that abusive actions similar to those that caused George Floyd’s death can be inflicted on kids at any time in schools across the nation. (Luckily neither the person in the film nor the 4th grader were killed.) Unsurprisingly, federal data show that Black students with disabilities are disproportionately subjected to restraint and seclusion in schools. KASSA might not solve all problems, but it is a first step in the right direction, a momentous first step in fact, to protect all our kids from such torture.
I am one of the lucky ones, never having been subjected to seclusion or restraint, but I fear for others. As someone born with an undiagnosed speech disability but no other significant motor impairments, I was able to communicate in other ways growing up, and handled the bullying and discrimination from both peers and teachers. Yet far too many in society only see my disability and dismiss me, whether they be the McDonalds’ worker who wouldn’t take my order, the over 200 employers who froze and refused to hire me when they realized I couldn’t speak after I showed up for the interview, or when my messages in the Zoom chat were ignored during a workshop on implicit bias of all things.
My point in sharing my story is that, even as an adult who knows my basic rights (I am a lawyer), I am dismissed every day because of my speech disability. Imagine the magnitude of the situation for kids with multiple and complex disabilities who rely on augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) to communicate. These students typically are denied access to AAC while they are secluded or restrained. They are also often victims of seclusion and restraint because they have been denied access to AAC, and are communicating with the only tools they have (i.e., their bodies). Such behavior typically gets misinterpreted as intentionally “bad” behavior or “noncompliance” rather than communication.
Nationally, over 74,000 students were subjected to physical or mechanical restraint during the 2017-2018 school year, according to the most recent US Department of Education data available. HUGE NUMBERS. But we miss how widespread the actual acts of seclusion and restraint are. For example, that year, 656 Virginia students were secluded 6,875 times. On average, each of those students was secluded 10.4 times. More than 2,400 Minnesota students were subjected to over 11,600 instances of physical restraint. Each student was restrained 4.8 times on average.
In my advocacy, I frequently cite the 2009 US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, “Selected Cases of Death and Abuse at Public and Private Schools and Treatment Centers,” in which investigators found hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and death related to the use of seclusion and restraint during the previous two decades. This report led Congress to introduce KASSA for the first time in 2009. Twelve years later, we are still waiting for the bill to pass while thousands of students are abused and killed. And in 2020, from the GAO’s report “Education Needs to Address Significant Quality Issues with Its Restraint and Seclusion Data,” we learned that the data schools do publicly report on their use of restraint and seclusion are woefully inadequate and almost certainly represent significant underestimates.
No study has shown seclusion and restraint to be therapeutic or beneficial, and the 2009 GAO Report and 2020 GAO Report reference how these tools are often misused to punish or discipline students. More importantly, seclusion and restraint have traumatic, life-long psychological and physical consequences. They can also kill children. And seclusion and restraint are disproportionately used on and can have the most drastic impact on those who cannot talk. Most of the cases of death cited in the 2009 GAO report involve “nonverbal” students.”
As described in a recent joint letter from 17 state attorneys general in support of KASSA, secluding and restraining our kids is not just inhumane. It can deprive children with disabilities of the rights afforded them by federal law, including under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Additionally, because kids who lack access to AAC cannot report when they’ve been inappropriately restrained or secluded, and with the justice system still giving little credibility to people who lack intelligible speech, there is little to no transparency or legal recourse when abuse occurs.
We must not stay silent on KASSA if we want all students to be safe and to be heard. KASSA will not automatically fix the disproportionate use of restraint and seclusion on students with disabilities, but it is a much-needed start. If you care about someone who cannot rely on speech to be heard and understood, be active in pushing for the passage of KASSA. Your voice matters, all of our voices matter.
India Ochs is the chair of CommunicationFIRST. She became the first AAC user to run for public office in the United States when she ran for the Board of Education in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, in 2020.