Reforms Needed to Combat Mistreatment of Special-Needs Students in California

Mandatory reporting, better training, and school choice should be first steps

Some special education students in California elementary schools are being tied to chairs in classrooms, being left alone while locked in small rooms at school and being harshly treated by school officials. Those are some of the troubling findings of a new report from California-based EdSource.

The study reveals disturbing statistics on the disciplinary practices used in California’s special education classrooms, where teachers and minimally trained classroom aides have discretion to use harsh physical restraint techniques and seclusion to manage special education students.

The report found the number of cases involving the restraint and isolation of special education students more than doubled, from 9,921 in the 2005-06 school year, to 22,043 in 2011-2012. Special education enrollment in California remained flat at around 686,000 students during that time.

In 2012, several Orange County districts were above the state average of 3.2 incidents of restraint or seclusion per 100 students, with Irvine at 4.38 incidents per 100 students, Newport Mesa had 4.05, and Tustin reported 3.33 incidents per 100 students.

Researchers believe that the actual numbers are higher because cases of seclusion – locking a child in a room alone – and restraint are severely underreported. In fact, as of 2012, the state of California no longer requires school districts to report such incidents to the state, nor must they disclose incidents to parents.

EdSource reviewed hundreds of “behavioral emergency reports” completed by during the 2011-12 school year to identify the kind of abusive treatment some of California’s most severely disabled students are experiencing at the hands of teachers and aides.

For example, an Orange Unified School District fifth-grader with autism and epilepsy was held face-down on the floor for 12 minutes because he wouldn’t stop touching the wheels of a special stroller he uses. His family has sued the district.

The EdSource report found that close to half of the California incidents involved the use of a “prone restraint” where a student is held face-down with his arms behind his back. A 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Education cautioned that prone restraints “should never be used” in special education because of the risk of serious injury or death.

The first step in addressing the unacceptable discipline practices in special education classrooms is requiring all instances of restraint and seclusion to be immediately reported to the parents and school district, as well as to the state and the federal Office of Civil Rights. Mandatory reporting would bring transparency to how schools handle students with behavioral issues and allow policymakers and parents to see rates of seclusion and restraint to take corrective action or make more informed choices about where to educate their children.

Better training for aides and staff who work with special-needs children is also needed. Right now, the least experienced staff members are asked to serve the most challenging students. Parents and taxpayers need to know why the extra resources generated for special education students are not spent on raising the quality and training of special education staff.

The parents of disabled children who are dissatisfied with their current schools need other options as well. In Arizona, the parents of special education students can get 90 percent of the per-pupil funding the state would have spent on that student put into an Empowerment Scholarship Account, which can then be used to pay for education therapy services and aides, tutoring and other services.

Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee have passed similar Education Savings Accounts laws and the Foundation for Excellence in Education reports that 22 state legislatures are considering similar legislation.

A law like this would give California’s parents more choices for their special-needs children. It would also put school districts on notice – if you use cruel disciplinary policies like restraint and seclusion, you’re probably going to lose that student and the funding that comes with him or her because parents have been empowered by school choice.

California’s special-needs students deserve far better than they are getting from the state and its schools.

Lisa Snell is director of education at Reason Foundation. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register.