Keeping Children Safe in an Unsafe World: Call your reps in support of the “Keeping All Children Safe In Schools” Act to stop uncontrolled restraint and seclusion. (Click HERE to go to the NAA action alert on the topic.)
By Adriana Gamondes
How would you know if your child were being restrained or secluded in school? If you ask the thousands of parents whose children have already been abused in schools, you wouldn’t until it was too late. But if you’re like most people, you kid yourself that you would. You’d know before it happened because you’re diligent, vigilant, caring and smart. Of course this implies that those whose children didn’t escape abuse were none of these things. They let it happen.
I don’t think any of us mean to be unkind when we think this way, but we are being very predictable. In criminal psychology, the defense mechanism is sometimes referred to as the “Safe World Effect”. I learned about it when I was a domestic violence advocacy volunteer. It goes like this: “God’s in his heaven and bad things don’t happen to good people”. The natural continuation of that thought is, sadly, “Bad things do happen to bad people”. Or maybe not bad people—just people who aren’t like us; who aren’t as good, diligent, vigilant, caring, smart. Or maybe our children are somewhat verbal and would tell us. Or our children aren’t violent behavior problems—so unlike what we imagine the casualties to be. Or maybe this only happens to people with different genes. In any case, God loves each of us more than other people.
Unless you spend your days locked inside the house wearing a flak suit, you think this way. So do I; so does everyone. That’s because the defense strategy isn’t without its uses:
apparently it’s how most of us talk ourselves into driving on the freeway every day, or getting on an airplane. When the risk is there but not that enormous, and when it would hinder daily functioning to consider every statistical danger in every instance, the old “vital lie” kicks in. But there are times when it’s better to suspend the mechanism on a case by case basis, when risk outweighs benefits of emotional defense, and when the defense mechanism turns us into bystanders who don’t lift a finger while “other people’s children” are abused, even killed, because we’re pretending to ourselves that our children aren’t next.
And maybe our children aren’t next. Maybe our children just get to watch another child being abused, restrained— even killed— from a front row seat. And after that they can have their turn.
I suspect that the “safe world” defense strategy is precisely how the autism epidemic has been allowed to continue; because no one wants to believe their child is next. It’s how most of the public views families effected by autism: that we’re somehow different, somehow not as good or as deserving as they are. God gave our children “bad genes” because God loves us less. It’s why the public resists the idea that autism can happen to anyone and therefore resists the idea of environmental cause. Realizing that autism can happen to anyone is tantamount to losing God’s love for some. The genes-only theories could not have been better designed to fill the “safe world”, can’t-happen-to-my-child trough for public consumption. This alone might explain why genetic theories in autism are all basically swill but still somehow manage to fly.
It’s safe (as anything can be) to say that most autism families have been partly stripped of that happy go lucky defense strategy. Some of us were temporarily completely stripped of it (I became a nervous driver. No flak jacket though). But in order to get through the day, most of us have to rebuild some form of emotional protection and have drifted back into some version of functional delusion. It’s just that, in this instance, we can’t let it extend to the issue of abuse in schools because our children are next whether we believe it or not. Without federal laws in place to protect children from abusive restraint and seclusion, the risk is real. It’s also important to bear in mind that, in the vast majority of cases, the children suffering from abusive restraint and seclusion were not posing a threat when incidents occurred.
Fortunately, there’s a more reliable way of defending our children from probability: raising hell in any situation where our own children, or children like ours—or anyone’s children—are put at risk.
In a short time, there will be a US Senate vote on S.2860 (HERE). The House version of the bill, H.R. 4247— the Keeping All Students Safe in School Act— has already passed. S.2860 now has to go through the Senate HELP committee (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) and on to the full Senate vote.
The federal bill has numerous problems according to several legal experts who’ve tracked it from inception, chiefly that the bill does not ban deadly face down and supine prone restraints. The argument made for allowing the use of deadly restraints is the same on state and federal levels: that, “if done right, the holds do not restrict breathing”— and only holds which “restrict breathing” are prohibited. Ironically, many schools cherry pick or concoct their own science on this matter. The “science” is usually derived from data provided by private, for-profit crisis management training outfits, usually run by former law enforcement personnel, which make most of their money providing training seminars for schools. And the schools will often hire only those crisis management professionals who demonstrate strategies the schools prefer. So, in spite of numerous deaths from traumatic asphyxiation and heart failure due to the use of face down and supine prone restraints, and in spite of the fact that these holds are banned from use in other federally funded institutions, the holds have been deemed “acceptable” for use on children.
The federal bill also places further restrictions on families’ right to sue schools for abuse (by barring the use of 42 U.S.C. §1983, (the “Ku Klux Klan Act” HERE), instead requiring families to seek enforcement and redress through states’ Protection and Advocacy agencies or “P&A’s”.
Unfortunately, some states’ “P&A” agencies are funded through the Department of Education. A clear conflict. And those P&A’s which aren’t funded through the DOE often lack the funding to make headway in a restraint and seclusion issue plaguing public schools in the US which has been growing along with the autism epidemic. For instance, in spite of the fact that, for several years, Protection and Advocacy agencies could have enforced an already existing law—42 USC - US Code - Title 42: The Public Health and Welfare (January 2003) (HERE)— which provides some far greater protections of students than even the current federal bill, these agencies have not done so. Furthermore, no one will make the P&A’s enforce this statute. Flawed or not, the federal bill up for the US Senate vote may be all we have.
The argument all along has been that the Federal bill is “better than nothing” in that it bans mechanical restraints, chemical restraints, restricts the use of physical restraints except in cases of “imminent threat of injury”, and requires mandatory reporting of all restraint and seclusion incidents (reporting to parents, reporting on a state level, and reporting on a federal level; all of which are important to create a national incident database). Since some states have virtually no protections and no mandated reporting, the bill certainly is better than nothing at all.
But it turns out that there may be something worse than nothing: on April 27th, the Florida House passed a bill which many believe gives nearly unrestricted license for schools to use restraint and seclusion against students. Tucked at the bottom of Florida House Bill 1073 (HERE), the portion pertaining to crisis management in schools legalizes any physical or mechanical restraint that does not “restrict breathing” ( again, restricted breathing as defined mostly by data derived from reports by private, for-profit crisis management report employed by schools); and allows any locked room (such as a closet) to be used for solitary confinement as long as it has a working light and meets state Fire Marshal regulations. The state bill does require reporting, though only on a state level, not a federal level. This could be a hindrance to tracking the prevalence of restraint, seclusion and abuse in schools nationwide. Lack of cohesive national data is then employed as leverage by those who support the use of deadly restraints and abusive seclusion practices, because opponents of R&S can’t argue against proponents’ numerous claims that the use of restraint and seclusion and resulting deaths and injuries are “rare” (see how that works?).
Florida anti-R&S activists sweat blood to try to stop the Florida bill with a “Kill Bill” campaign, but to no avail. On April 29th, the Florida bill passed the State Senate and will go next to Governor Crist’s office to be signed into law (HERE).
Another painful irony of the struggle for children’s safety in Florida is that members of some prominent Florida anti-R&S advocacy groups had originally written and submitted a state bill proposal outlining protections for students and positive strategies for crisis management. But, in the end, the advocates’ bill was ditched in favor of the present, fatally flawed state legislation. The parent activists will make a last effort to reach Governor Crist, but hopes aren’t running high.
Because a federal statute on R&S would supersede state statutes in the case that federal regulations are stronger than existing state laws, students in states which currently have weak or virtually no student protections would be safer with the passage of the federal bill. For this reason, it has become more important than ever that the federal bill goes through.
In the case that the federal bill does not pass, we can’t drop the ball a second time. Perhaps it would be an opportunity to move for the creation of a better federal bill, one without such extensive tort protections for schools and one which at last bans the face down and supine prone restraints which kill children every year. How many? As previously stated, without mandatory reporting, no one is sure.
But in the mean time, if the federal bill fails in the Senate, more children will be injured and more lives lost because students in some states would be without any protection at all for an unknown duration. So to repeat—the Keeping All Children Safe in School Act must pass. Please call and email your representatives to strengthen the odds that it does. Florida’s precedent of virtually legalizing abusive practices in schools could quickly be repeated in other states—and not just the ones that “God loves less”.
Adriana Gamondes, a former theater director, lives in Massachusetts with her husband and recovering twins.