GAO: Schools Abuse Disabled Kids

A new GAO report shows that the Judge Rotenberg Center in Massachusetts isn’t the only place where developmentally disabled and emotionally troubled kids have been physically punished and restrained. The report, which came out today, details cases at public and private schools across the nation where children as young as five have been sat on, lashed to chairs, isolated for hours, starved, and humiliated as punishment for actions like “slouching and hand waving.” In dozens of cases, these punitive measures resulted in students’ deaths.

Though much of the report details specific cases of abuse, there is also some revealing analysis. For example, the GAO found “no federal laws restricting the use of seclusion and restraints in public and private schools and widely divergent laws at the state level.” In addition to the lack of legal guidance, teachers and aides are often insufficiently trained in how to apply restraints to children. Many of the student deaths occurred because staff were sitting on them, restraining them face-down, or putting them in a “stranglehold” and didn’t notice when the child became unresponsive or ignored children’s pleas that they couldn’t breathe.

While the government obviously cannot monitor every use of child restraint, the GAO found that it could, at least, gather information. “GAO could not find a single Web site, federal agency, or other entity that collects information on the use of these methods or the extent of their alleged abuse,” the report said.

The private Judge Rotenberg Center, which we investigated in 2007, may be the only school that uses electric shocks to discipline children. But sadly, as this new report graphically illustrates, it’s far from being alone in using severe physical punishment on its special needs students.