Know the Perils of Physical Interventions

K-12 teachers, administrators and staff who understand when it is appropriate to use – and not use – physical restraints will be better prepared to safely discipline kids who are a danger to themselves or others.

Earlier this year, two advocacy groups issued reports documenting many instances where school personnel disciplined students with disabilities by using abusive physical interventions. Pinning students to the floor for hours, handcuffing them to chairs and locking them in closets were just some of the methods teachers and other school staff used in an attempt to control the troubled or disruptive children in their care.

The Government Accountability Organization (GAO) found hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and death related to the use of these methods during the past two decades. It also found no federal laws restricting the use of seclusion and restraints in public and private schools, and widely divergent laws at the state level.

Experts agree that physical interventions can be dangerous and even result in death, particularly if the person being restrained is held in a position where he or she can’t breathe properly. “Anytime you physically engage with someone, you’re elevating the risk to the student and the staff,” says Crisis Prevention Institute Executive Director Randy Boardman.

In light of the GAO’s findings and the risks associated with restraints and seclusion, it may only be a matter of time before the federal and state governments increase their oversight of the use of these methods on school children. As a result, schools need to revisit how they are managing children who exhibit challenging behavior. The need for this is particularly acute now that many children with autism or other special needs are being integrated into traditional schools, and faculty might not understand how to work with these students.

One good source of guidance on this topic might be your local hospital. The use of physical interventions in U.S. hospitals has been regulated since the late 1990s, and many healthcare staff (but not all) have been trained how to appropriately apply restraints. They also have been trained on ways to diffuse incidents before they become violent. Techniques such as respecting an individual’s personal space and keeping nonverbal cues nonthreatening could be applied to schools.

Of course, K-12 campuses have their own circumstances that must be addressed. For example, unlike hospitals where confrontations usually develop in private areas with one individual, school incidents often involve several persons and occur in front of other students in areas such as a cafeteria or hallway. “Moving [students who are acting out] to another setting where they don’t have an audience is often a good way to go,” says Boardman.

I encourage schools to train their staff on the appropriate use of restraints and how to de-escalate potentially violent situations involving all troubled kids — be they disabled or just exhibiting youthful exuberance. And if you don’t know where to look for help, your local hospital might be a good start.

About the Author

Robin Hattersley Gray
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Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

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