WASHINGTON – Corey Foster, 16, was playing basketball with his friends at his school in Yonkers, N.Y., in April, when a staff member asked them to leave the court. What happened next is in dispute, with witnesses describing aggressive staff who escalated the situation and school officials who deny that. But the conflict ended with several staff members on top of Corey, who suffered cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead at a hospital later that day.
“It wasn’t known to me that they were touching my son,” said Sheila Foster, Corey’s mother, who was in Washington, D.C., on Thursday for a Senate committee hearing in support of federal restrictions on restraint techniques in schools. “If I had known Corey was being touched or tied or restrained, I wouldn’t have had him in that school.”
Foster was on Capitol Hill at a hearing, held by the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, on how schools can adopt positive alternatives to isolating students in rooms or restraining them in response to challenging student behavior. Witnesses included school administrators from Georgia, Virginia and Pennsylvania, who testified about the results they have achieved using individualized plans to encourage good behavior.
The issue of restraints and seclusion at schools has gained public attention in recent years, driven by the inclusion of more special-needs children in mainstream schools after the passage of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Students were restrained nearly 39,000 times during the 2009 to 2010 school year, with nearly 70 percent of incidents involving students with disabilities, said Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) in his introductory remarks at the hearing, citing data by the U.S. Department of Education. Data released in March revealed racial disparities as well, Harkin said: African-American students, who make up 21 percent of students with disabilities, represented 44 percent of those restrained mechanically.
Such “outdated and outmoded” practices often exacerbate the behavior that they were intended to curb, and for some children, result in injury or even death, Harkin said. “Positive behavioral interventions and supports can reduce or completely eliminate the need for these procedures,” Harkin said.
Harkin and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) have introduced Senate and House versions of the Keeping All Children Safe Act, S.B. 2020 and H. B. 1381, which prohibits the use of chemical and mechanical restraints, and the use of physical restraints in a way that constrict a student’s breathing.
Harkin’s version for the Senate bill also prohibits seclusion, only allows the use of physical restraint on students in case of emergencies and mandates staff to use the least amount of force necessary. It also emphasizes parental notification within 24 hours of an incident.
The legislation, which by Harkin’s own admission appears unlikely to pass a deadlocked Congress this year, has widespread support from dozens of organizations who work or advocate for people with disabilities, including the National Autism Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the American Association of People with Disabilities.
But other groups, like the American Association of School Administrators, vehemently oppose any effort to create federal limits on seclusion and restraint practices in schools, saying that the majority of school staff uses such practices correctly and that such limits put staff in danger. Nearly half of all school personnel who have received training in seclusion and restraint techniques were attacked by a student one to five times during the 2010 to 2011 school year, according a March report by AASA.
In May, the Department of Education released 15 principles that schools and parents should follow when deciding whether to use restraints on students or to isolate them from their peers. Such advice “would go a long way” in preventing dangerous behavior if schools were to follow it faithfully, says APRAIS, a consortium of dozens of organizations that work with people with disabilities.
“However,” APRAIS wrote in a letter supporting the adoption of federal legislation limiting the use of restraint and seclusion in schools, “these principles are voluntary and offer families no recourse if schools do not choose to follow them.”
Foster, whose son Corey died after being restrained by school staff, hopes her advocacy can help grant recourse to other parents.
“While I cannot bring my son back, I can advocate for other children,” she said.