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Restraint can dispirit and hurt special-ed students
Posted 5/18/2009 8:36 PM ET
Toni Price was at work that afternoon in 2002 when she got the call from her foster son Cedric's eighth-grade teacher: Paramedics were at his middle school in Killeen, Texas. Cedric wasn't breathing.

When Price arrived at school, there he was, lying on the floor. "I'm thinking he's just laying there because he didn't want to get in trouble," she says, fighting back tears.

Actually, Cedric was dead.

A 14-year-old special-education student who'd arrived at the school with a history of abuse and neglect, Cedric had been taken from his home five years earlier with his siblings.

He'd just been smothered by his teacher, police said, after she placed him in a "therapeutic floor hold" to keep him from struggling during a disagreement over lunch.

Congress to air 'widespread' allegations

His case is one of 10 to be highlighted today during a hearing on Capitol Hill over the use of restraint and seclusion in the USA's public and private schools — techniques often used to control children with disabilities.

GAO: Schools restraining, confining disabled children

A new report from the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, also out today, finds "widespread" allegations of abuse involving the practices in schools — even when students aren't physically aggressive or dangerous to themselves or others.

Investigators say they uncovered hundreds of allegations of abuse involving restraint or seclusion at public and private schools nationwide between 1990 and 2009.

But investigators don't have a ready figure for the number of students disciplined this way.

"That's the million-dollar question, because there's no data collection," says Jane Hudson of the National Disability Rights Network, a Washington-based student advocacy group. "It's a hidden problem."

GAO in 2007 investigated similar allegations in residential treatment facilities.

Often in schools, investigators found, teachers aren't fully trained in the techniques. Only seven states even require training, and 19 have no laws or regulations on restraint or seclusion in school.

"The evidence suggests it's a lack of training, a lack of understanding," says U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who requested the report.

In many cases, parents haven't given consent to the techniques or are shocked to find them taking place — as in 2001, when a Cupertino, Calif., teacher put Paige Gaydos, then a 7-year-old with mild autism, into time-out after the girl refused to do schoolwork.

After she found Paige wiggling a loose tooth in time-out, the teacher put her into a face-down "prone restraint" hold and sat on top of her.

Her reason for sitting atop a 43-pound child?

"Time-out didn't work if she had something to play with," says Ann Gaydos, Paige's mother, whose family sued the district in 2003. A federal jury awarded them $700,000, but they settled for $260,000 to avoid an appeal. In the bargain, the district agreed to modify discipline policies. Cupertino Union School District Superintendent Phil Quon says he now requires administrators to take part in "restraint training" each fall.

Now 15, Paige is home-schooled. Her family lives in Colorado and she's more withdrawn, says her mother, less able to trust adults. "She came out of there very listless, kind of discouraged, kind of cynical."

Ann Gaydos is scheduled to testify in today's congressional hearing.

Experts: It should be a last resort

A few experts say restraint and seclusion should be a teacher's last line of defense against upset or unruly kids, but that the techniques can be effective when used properly.

Bill East, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, says they should be allowed "in those rare instances when school-based positive behavioral support has not worked."

But five states now ban prone restraint, which caused Cedric's death. The disability-rights network last January called on the Obama administration to ban it — or any other restraint that can suffocate a child — except when the immediate physical safety of students or staff is jeopardized.

In the Texas case, witnesses said Cedric, who weighed 129 pounds, repeatedly told the teacher he couldn't breathe, pleading, "I give." He soon became silent, but police say the 230-pound teacher continued to restrain him.

After teachers lifted his limp body, a school nurse administered CPR. But Cedric was dead, and a dozen classmates had watched. "You're putting children more at risk when they're allowed to witness something of that nature, to hear a child begging for his life," says Price.

Police labeled Cedric's death a homicide, but a grand jury declined to indict the teacher. The district investigated and found "reason to believe" the teacher physically abused him. They placed her name in a registry of people who have abused or neglected children, but she now teaches at a Virginia public school.

The Killeen district no longer allows teachers to restrain children on the floor and now requires a full report when restraint is used, says spokeswoman Leslie Gilmore.

In the years since Cedric's death, Price has talked to several of the teacher's former colleagues who call the incident a horrible accident and say the teacher was just doing her job.

Price won't have any of it. "It's not your job to take a child down if they're not in danger or endangering someone else," she says. "She was not just 'doing her job.' "

Posted 5/18/2009 8:36 PM ET
Paige plays the harp as Ann Gaydos looks on in their Monument, Colo., home. Paige's experience at school made her "discouraged" and less likely to trust adults, says her mom.
By Matthew Staver for USA TODAY
Paige plays the harp as Ann Gaydos looks on in their Monument, Colo., home. Paige's experience at school made her "discouraged" and less likely to trust adults, says her mom.
Paige Gaydos, now 15 and home-schooled, was held face-down by a teacher in 2001. Her mother Ann, right, will testify at Congress' hearing May 19. Paige Gaydos, now 15 and home-schooled, was held face-down by a teacher in 2001. Her mother Ann, right, will testify at Congress' hearing May 19.

By Matthew Staver for USA TODAY