This article is the first in a series about the use of physical behavior-control methods on school children. Your feedback is welcomed at email@example.com
It’s back-to-school time, and that means a lot of excited and jittery kids.
Some of them are nervous about making friends, finding their homeroom, or whether they’ll like their teachers.
Less fortunate are those who worry that they’ll be forcibly isolated in a “time-out room” or physically restrained by the adults charged with their care.
That’s because these practices, known among educators as “seclusion” and “restraint,” while frowned upon, are still legal in the State of Wisconsin— and in some schools, including some locally, they are deployed frequently.
If you’re picturing a surly teen giving lip to security in the schoolyard, think again. The vast majority of these kids are elementary aged boys with a disability, often autism, according to disability advocates.
Legally, seclusion and restraint are supposed to be rare interventions to save a life. In practice, some schools, including some in southwestern Wisconsin, use them again and again to control the same students. Many of those districts have become targets of the U.S. Department of Justice, which has been cracking down on schools that over-use the techniques.
“You should not be restraining the same kids over and over again,” according to Guy Stephens, a parent and full-time activist against the practices. “The U.S. Department of Civil Rights is very clear. If you are restraining the same kid over and over, it’s no longer an emergency intervention, it’s a planned intervention.”
“I use the words ‘last resort’ all the time when I train teachers,” explained Laurie Genz Prien, Director of Special Education for the Boscobel
School District. She trains other educators in Nonviolent Crisis Intervention (NCI), which provides alternatives to seclusion and restraint.
She gives the example of a child running into a busy street as an instance when restraint would be appropriate.
“You’re making a quick decision about whether a life is threatened,” she said. In one training, she was explaining the method when a teacher asked her when it might be appropriate to “take a student down.”
“I said, ‘Never.’ It’s never appropriate to ‘take a student down.’ It’s illegal. We don’t do it that way anymore.”
And there are good reasons we don’t, according to Mary Cerretti, an advocate at Disability Rights Wisconsin, one of the organizations that helped write the legislation that since 2020, requires schools to report their data to the state.
The law’s intent is more transparency around the use of seclusion and restraint in schools. For example, schools are required to create a written incident report and share it with the parents, and to hold a team meeting each if they resort to force.
The goal, according to Cerretti, is to shift the culture toward meeting students’ needs long before a physical intervention is needed.
“Where we need to be focusing is to supply support early on. To see when the student is getting fidgety, or getting out of his seat, and intervene earlier,” she said.
Some students with autism spectrum disorder, for example, struggle to process sensory data. For them, a classroom environment may feel overwhelming, even frightening. In her work with schools, Ceretti stresses the importance of understanding such needs.
“We have staff tell us they’ve tried everything,” she said. “But there’s not been a single time that if we actually meet the student’s needs up front, we can stop the negative behavior. All behavior is communication. So the question becomes: what do they need?”
Far from answering their needs, forcibly restraining or secluding a child causes trauma that is likely to increase their behavior problems, according to Guy Stephens, who founded the nonprofit Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint after his own son was put in seclusion.
“Seclusion is never an option. If you were to do that as a parent in public, say you’re at the store and you drag your screaming child to the dressing room and prevent them from leaving while they scream and cry, someone would call the police,” he said. Stephens believes it should be no different at school.
“What happens, kids will go into one of these rooms and they scream and bang their heads, and maybe in 20 or 30 minutes they go limp and slump against a back wall,” Stephens said. “Then staff looks in there and says, ‘Oh, I think they’re calming down.’ That’s not calm. It’s when you feel so helpless you go into a shutdown state. At that point, they’re in a dissociative state.”
Wisconsin school districts have been required to report incidents of seclusion and restraint to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) since 2020. That data gives a snapshot, albeit imperfect, of how many students are being controlled with these techniques.
According to the DPI, educators secluded nearly 6,000 students statewide and restrained nearly 7,000 during the 2021-2022 school year.
In fact, the numbers are probably higher, according to Joanne Juhnke, an Advocacy Specialist at Disability Rights Wisconsin (DRW), in part because special education staff and resources are spread thin.
The DPI defines the southwest region of Wisconsin as “Cooperative Educational Service Agency-3,” or CESA-3. Our region is rural (the largest school has about 600 students) and overall shows a lower usage of seclusion and restraint than more urban CESAs to the east.
CESA-3 includes nearly 90 schools in 31 school districts, including all or parts of the counties of Grant, Crawford, Richland, Iowa, and Lafayette, as well as slivers of some surrounding counties.
The majority of schools in CESA-3—some 75 percent— reported zero instances of seclusion and restraint. Of the roughly 20 schools that did use these methods, most did so only occasionally.
But at a small number of schools, students were secluded or restrained—or both— time and time again. In fact, about 60 percent of all seclusion and restraint incidents in the entire CESA-3 area happened in just a half-dozen schools.
In those schools, the rate at which educators seclude or restrain students is dramatically higher than that reported by other schools in the region. Yet nothing in these school’s demographics— race, economic disadvantage, or percentage of students with disabilities— marks them as exceptional.
Three of those schools are in Grant or Crawford county:
• At Bluff View Elementary in Prairie du Chien, seven students were restrained 22 times. Four of them were disabled. Six students, three disabled, were secluded 14 times.
• At Platteville’s Neal Wilkins Early Learning Center, which serves students from age four to kindergarten, five students were secluded a total of 30 times. All five were disabled. At the same school, five disabled students were restrained 20 times. (Because of vagueness in the data reporting law, there’s no way to confirm if the data refers to the same five students.)
• And at New Frontier Academy in Prairie du Chein, 12 students, all with disabilities, were restrained a total of 57 times. Again, the DPI data does not specify how many times each individual child was restrained.
New Frontier Academy is a for-profit private school that receives taxpayer money for special education students who are referred from public districts (including Boscobel). It is owned and operated by Clinicare Corporation and directed by Mary Beth Specht.
Specht also served as director of another Clinicare facility, a residential treatment facility called Wyalusing Academy. In 2013, state authorities revoked its license when a student was paralyzed from the waist down after staff restrained him—a stark example of how dangerous these practices can be.
Even barring physical injury, Stephens said, the prognosis is grim for children subjected to these forcible methods.
“The same students who are being isolated, restrained, put in solitary confinement, and in some parts of the country physically disciplined,” Stephens said, “they become—surprise, surprise—disengaged from school, and they fall out of the system. It’s a failure that’s having a tremendous impact on lives.”
The Dial reached out to personnel at all three schools. A later story in this series will elaborate on their responses.