Disabled students face dangerous discipline in Minnesota

Outbursts at school lead to physical restraints, solitary confinement.

A 10-year-old autistic boy was pinned to the floor and held facedown for 57 minutes by three staff members at his school after he threw a tantrum while working on a puzzle in his special education classroom.

Another boy with autism who caused disruptions in class was put in physical holds that left him struggling to breathe.

A 14-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who “acted out” in class severed her finger after an aide barricaded her alone in a room at her school.

It happens thousands of times a year in Minnesota’s classrooms: Disabled students get punished for disruptive outbursts with severe forms of discipline — from forceful physical restraint to extended solitary confinement — that are either banned or more restricted in other states.

State reports examined by the Star Tribune show that such discipline occurred nearly 22,000 times on more than 2,500 special education students last year.

Records from recent years also show that school staff are using dangerous physical holds and lengthy isolation often in response to minor episodes by disabled students. One 9-year-old was physically restrained 189 times over the first half of a school year. Others have been refused water or kept alone in rooms until they wet their pants.

Some staff members are putting special education students in intense facedown holds that last 15 minutes or more, records also show — long enough to risk injury or even accidental death.

Valarie Jones was horrified by her teenage son’s bruised, swollen face after he was restrained by school staff in response to a fight he had with another special education student.

“I thought the other boy had beaten him up, but it wasn’t the other boy, it was the teacher who threw him down,” said Jones, whose son has several disabilities. “To me, it was worse than you would treat an animal.”

With rising numbers of special education students in Minnesota’s schools, many of whom suffer from mental or behavioral disorders, classroom discipline has become the focus of urgent debate among educators — and a source of fear and outrage among parents of disabled children.

The most controversial form of discipline is a maneuver known as “prone restraint,” in which students are forced to the floor and held facedown by two or three school workers for an unlimited amount of time in an attempt to subdue them. The technique, which federal officials have linked to abuse and accidental death, has been outlawed in 20 states.

Other physical restraints are also raising alarms. In Minnesota, schools can use a “supine hold,” in which students are restrained lying on their backs, and a “basket hold,” in which an adult grasps a student from behind and holds the student by the wrists with the child’s arms crossed in front of the body.

Last year the U.S. Education Department declared that the prone hold and other restraints that restrict breathing “should never be used.” The department also urged schools to avoid confining children in isolation rooms “as a means of coercion or retaliation, or as a convenience.”

“There is no evidence,” the department said, “that using restraint or seclusion is effective in reducing the occurrence of the problem behaviors.”

But such practices continue in Minnesota schools.

In fact, while state lawmakers have tightened rules on the use of seclusion and restraints in recent years, records show the use of prone restraint increased in 2012.

Prone restraint is supposed to be phased out in August. But at the request of school officials, the Legislature is moving to let the practice continue for at least two more years.

Some say the discipline is needed because disabled students can be dangerously unpredictable and risk harming themselves and others.

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