From Handcuffs to Hope!

Today I was reading about the 5 year old boy with special needs who was handcuffed and shackled. It hit close to home because I have experienced similar events as a teacher. My experience led me to begin educational training and restructuring from the Administrative level down in school districts, to provide a safer environment for students and staff.


First, no child, regardless of age, should be handcuffed in this type of situation unless he is an eminent threat to himself or others, which in this case he was not. If he tried to stab and choke himself, the solution would be to remove the items he was trying to use from his environment or move him to a safer environment in a dignified manner.


Based on the few facts shared in this article, it is evident that there was no communication between the administration, the school, the boy’s teacher, and the parents. Even though the New York department of education has very specific guidelines regarding behavior issues in schools, it appears that guidelines were not implemented in this case.


I find this a reality in many districts. I have heard excuses such as, not having enough money to train everyone, to not having small enough class sizes with teachers and assistants that are trained properly. I’ve found that because of budget cuts or other issues, many children who are not ready to participate in school, meaning they can not follow a routine and simple directions, are put into classrooms with children who can, and they end up disrupting the classroom and impeding the progress of other students.


All of these problems stem from the top and trickle down to the teachers and their classrooms, where they are told, “just keep them safe.” If districts were to take a top down approach, re-evaluate what is and isn’t working and put better practices into place, we would have fewer of theses incidents.


One problem is that many districts have administrators who haven’t taught in many years, let alone actually spent any time in classrooms in their districts as an observer. I actually had an administrator tell me that she was amazed at what had changed in the classroom since she taught. She remembered when it was ok to strap a child to a chair and leave them their until they calmed down. She actually told me she didn’t know how I could do it. I was speechless. How can administrators make the policies that affect children and teachers when they haven’t even seen the classroom environment in 10+ years?


Every district needs a plan in place that is proactive instead of reactive. In this case, and I am sure many more, it is the opposite way around, reactive instead of proactive.


Lets look at it from the top down. At the administrative level the first thing that needs to be done is Crisis Prevention Training. There are many programs to choose from. There should be a trained team at every school and administrators who are trained as auxiliary. There also needs to be a very strict and well thought out plan to handle difficult behaviors, including having more than one behavior therapist who is able to go site to site. Training, and I don’t mean a one day teacher in-service, for staff throughout the district. Training should include appropriate steps to take to stop behaviors before they escalate, how to de-escalate them, and what to do to keep everyone safe when behaviors do get out of control, because sometimes they do. Lastly, a support system is needed to help staff cope with the aftermath, physical and emotional, of dealing with children who have aggressive behaviors.


Administration needs to look at situations like this with a team approach, which most districts do not. The child’s educational team (IEP team) should all work together to support the child. That team includes teachers, therapists and administrator, as well as parents. As a matter of fact, by law (IDEA 2004) parents have to be part of the team, no exceptions. Based on the article, there did not appear to be a team effort to assist this child. They kept referring to “the parents behavior plan”. Not once was it stated that the IEP team, or the district had a mutually agreed upon plan in place. It also is suspect that the school would not allow the parents to see the report regarding the incident. Parents have the right to see any and all reports about their child. (IDEA 2004) By keeping information from the family it breaks down the trust between the school and the parents and it decimates the team that is supposed to be supporting the student.


This particular case goes further than just the school district. As it has been seen throughout media lately, many police departments do not have proper training to deal with people with special needs when they are not complying with the law. “Bear hugs” have been shown to cause harm to small children if not done properly due to the pressure on their chests and arms and physical restraint of any kind should only be used in the most severe cases such as threatening true physical harm to self or others. Pencils and crayons are easily removed so they do not qualify as justification for physical restraint. So this issue is also prevalent in our society.


With the rise in Autism and other developmental disabilities it is important that our authority figures are properly trained and are also role models for society when it comes to interacting with the special needs population. It is imperative that society works together to understand, include, and support those with special needs within our community.


A simple solution is mandatory training and ongoing support for all agencies who choose to employ those with special needs. By being proactive, families who have members with special needs will feel safe, welcome and supported. Just like most of us, that is really all they want.

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