Michigan Legislator Proposes Law to Eliminate Cruel Forms of Punishment in Schools

“Seclusion in schools is a dangerous and unregulated practice that puts children at risk of harm.” — Mark McWilliams, Director of Information, Referral and Education Services at Michigan Protection & Advocacy Service, Inc.

seclusion room

Seclusion Room, photo: MPAS

Many have seen that heart-wrenching video of the terrified 5-year old Georgia school boy enduring a paddling over his misbehavior at the hands of unbending school administrators. Much of the nation was horrified to learn that this kind of physical abuse remains perfectly legal in 19 states, primarily in the “spare the rod” bible belt region. Corporal punishment may shock the delicate sensibilities of the residents of more refined states, but they too would benefit from a closer look at other, also perfectly legal, “enhanced” techniques employed in their school systems — both public and private.

A Michigan public school my children attended during their early years had a small room in the administrator’s office — windowless, containing only a cot. About the size of a small closet, it was reserved for two purposes — a place for sick children to be quarantined prior to parental pick-up, and an isolation holding cell for the naughty. If one can get past the ill-advised practice of exposing truculent children to all manner of contagion, the salient question would be: Is the use of isolation, officially referred to as “seclusion” among academics, an appropriate and effective practice?

More than a mere time-out — a cooling of one’s heels in the hallway, seclusion is a technique of dubious efficacy, which all too frequently targets special needs students, and is employed in lieu of thoughtful and professional intervention and redirection. The civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Education reports that while children with disabilities make up 12 percent of the school population, they comprise 58 percent of those subjected to seclusion, and a whopping 75 percent of those forced to endure physical restraint.

Among its opponents, the practice falls into the same category as physical restraint of children — another misguided technique regularly used with the intent of correcting challenging behavior. However, not only are these practices dehumanizing and cruel, they simply do not produce favorable results.

Acting through executive action earlier this year, President Obama put an end to solitary confinement of juvenile offenders in prison, yet our schools routinely put very young children, guilty of little more than acting their age within their mental capacity, in solitary for a good portion of their school day.

Stop Hurting Kids.com, an advocacy group working to put an end to restraint and seclusion, describes the consequences of these barbaric practices:

There is no evidence of the therapeutic or educational value of restraint and seclusion. They are practices that are neither ethical nor beneficial, and often cause a spiraling effect in which additional unwanted behaviors may arise. Further, there is an existing and growing body of evidence in support of positive alternatives in addressing challenging behaviors.

Michigan lawmaker Rep. Frank Liberati (D-13) is championing a package of ten bills that would restrict the use of “archaic methods”, such as restraint and seclusion in the state’s public schools. His son has Fragile X Syndrome — an inherited condition among boys, which is a disorder often accompanied by autism and similarly marked by a spectrum of intellectual disabilities and a number of behavioral problems — the kind of which could prompt restraint and seclusion measures in the classroom.

House Bills 5409 through 5418 layout a detailed plan for eliminating cruel forms of classroom punishment, providing training for school personnel on effective techniques, plus requirements for a documentation and reporting process. The House Fiscal Agency reports that this legislative package is nearly identical to the recommendations made by the Michigan Department of Education compiled by a group of parents, advocates, educators, policy makers, and service providers convened between 2004 and 2006 to study and develop effective policies that protect the dignity of all students and the integrity of the educational process.

Calling it long overdue, Elmer Cerano, executive director of MPAS, supports this legislative package:

“Public schools are still the only service system where these dangerous practices remain unregulated and unreported. The bills before the committee strike a good balance between the legitimate needs of educators and the safety of children.”

Video of Liberati testifying before the Michigan House Education Committee:

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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