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Education

US Schools Restrain or Seclude Students With Disabilities More Than They Admit, Watchdog Says


Why Global Citizens Should Care
Children need access to quality education in safe, protected environments to overcome poverty. The Government Accountability Office is asking the Department of Education to collect accurate data to ensure policies are set in place that prevent officials from misusing harmful tactics on students with disabilities. You can join us and take action on this issue here

The misuse of restraint and seclusion tactics in schools is a persistent problem in the US. In January, the Department of Education agreed to investigate the issue, but a new report shows the government needs to collect more accurate data before offering guidance.

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan federal watchdog agency, issued a report Monday that evaluates how often schools recorded their use of restraint or seclusion from the 2015-16, the most recent reporting year. 

Public schools have said they rarely use the practices which are meant to restain or isolate children who are believed to be a danger to themselves or others, according to NPR. The GAO is concerned the US Department of Education is underreporting and misreporting these cases. Disability rights advocates applaud the agency for pressing schools for more answers. 

Restraint  –– meant to restrict a student's movements by holding them –– and seclusion –– intended to isolate a student to prevent them from physically leaving –– are supposed to be a last resort. The lack of federal laws governing how these practices are used, make them easy to abuse. When students become a danger to themselves, or other students and teachers, many educators don’t feel like they have any other option and they put themselves at risk of injury as well.

The GAO found that 70% of the more than 17,000 school districts in the US reported zero incidents of restraint and zero incidents of seclusion. However, the agency’s analysis and documents from the Department of Education showed that nine of the 30 largest districts (those with more than 100,000 students) inaccurately reported zeros when they actually had incidents or did not have the data. 

Take Action: What Do You Know About the Inequalities Faced by People Living with Disabilities?

“These practices are most frequently affecting students with disabilities which are some of the nation’s most vulnerable school children,” Jackie Nowicki, a director at GAO and author of the report told Global Citizen.

The negative impacts of this practice are overwhelming.

It can make students who suffer from behavior issues more violent, as well as create negative associations with school for children with disabilities, parents interviewed by Oregon Public Radio station WAMU said.

Also, it takes kids who are already likely to miss learning opportunities out of the classroom.

Students with disabilities have lower attendance rates and are more likely to be out of school or leave school before completing primary education. They are suspended or expelled at a rate more than double the rate of their non-special education peers. 

A report published in 2018 by GAO found that black students in the US were disproportionately disciplined in K-12 public schools. When students of color, who are more likely to be low-income, have disabilities, school punishment can have major consequences.

Read More: 72 Guidelines for Students With Disabilities Have Been Rescinded by the US Dept. of Education

Students who are suspended or expelled are more likely to drop out of high school, and become involved in the juvenile and criminal justice systems, a pattern known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Fewer educational and employment opportunities are available to those who don’t receive a high school education. 

“It’s difficult to see how education can systematically address the potential of these practices, which put children's lives at risk when they are misused,” Nowicki said.  “We don’t want people making public policy decisions based on inaccurate data.” 

The restriction and seclusion data set is widely used by researchers, the public and Congress to inform public policy decision, Nowicki explained. 

GAO is currently collecting data from the 2017-2018 school year on restraint and seclusion and working on a larger study that will look at what districts are doing to reduce the inappropriate use.

The National Disability Rights Network is calling on the Office for Civil Rights to take steps recommended by the GAO to ensure that Office for Civil Rights Data Collection accurately reflects the use of restraint and seclusion in the US. 

“It is critical that they take steps now to address underreporting,” Curt Decker, NDRN executive director said in a statement. 

In the report GAO suggests best practices for the Department of Education to correct the data including –– reminding districts to leave total instances of restraint or seclusion blank if they don’t have the data, following up with districts that have reported zero instances, and ensuring that the department has plans for districts who don’t have data available.