‘It hurts your bones’: Private special ed schools can restrain kids with disabilities 1,000s of times. Parents might not know.

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‘It hurts your bones’: Private special ed schools can restrain kids with disabilities 1,000s of times. Parents might not know.

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This story was produced by the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School.

When the public school in Norwalk, Connecticut, wanted to send Barbara Profit’s children to a private school for kids with disabilities, the mother warily agreed. She had hoped to keep them in public school, but knew her two kids, ages 9 and 5, needed extra support. 

Her son Tyllis has autism, while her youngest child Shirley has multiple disabilities, including schizophrenia. Both had aggressive outbursts in school, sometimes including hitting and kicking. In 2011, the district told her it didn’t have the resources to meet the kids’ needs, so it would pay to put them in a private school instead.

But the longer her kids spent at the new program, called High Road, the more alarmed Profit felt. Several times a month, one or both of her children would be physically restrained by school staff after an aggressive outburst, or locked in a closet-sized seclusion room. It happened most often to Shirley. In the spring of 2015, the 9-year-old girl was put into an isolation room 15 times in a single month. During the same time period, staff physically restrained Shirley six times, holding her on the ground or with her arms behind her back. 

“It’s just devastating to see all these restraints,” said Profit. 

Shirley and Tyllis’ situation is emblematic of a disturbing trend across the country. When children with disabilities can’t get the education they need in their school district, federal law requires the school to offer them “private placement” – essentially, putting them in private school at taxpayers’ expense. Many children benefit greatly. However, scores of these private schools restrain and seclude children hundreds or even thousands of times per year, an investigation by The Teacher Project and the USA TODAY Network found. One private school for students with autism in Virginia, for example, reported almost 4,000 restraint and seclusion incidents in a single year

Exactly how many children receive this kind of treatment, however, is unknown. Most states don’t require private schools to report any information about restraint and seclusion – even if they get millions of dollars each year from the public school district.

“I don’t think anybody pays much attention to what these schools are doing, and they’re spending a lot of public money doing it,” said Andrew Feinstein, a special-education attorney in Mystic, Connecticut. 

There’s a good reason to start paying attention. 

The death of George Floyd after a police restraint this spring sparked massive civil rights protests and brought on a renewed attention to racial disparities across the country, including in schools. Yet the nation’s Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education does not keep any data on how often private schools restrain students with disabilities. This lack of information makes it nearly impossible to track what is happening to those students, especially students of color. A Teacher Project analysis found that in Connecticut, one of the few states that does track this data, Black and Hispanic students in private special education schools are twice as likely to be restrained as White students.

Disparities in special education: Two boys with the same disability tried to get help. The rich student got it quickly. The poor student did not.

Profit, who is Black, felt like the private school treated her daughter “just like a police officer would have. They would hold her down, put her down on the floor, like the police would do.”

In a first-of-its-kind effort, the Teacher Project and the USA TODAY Network reached out to all 50 states for data on restraint and seclusion in special-education private schools. Just 10 states and Washington, D.C., were able to provide complete information. 

Yet even the limited data available shows a stark trend: Private schools often account for the majority of restraint and seclusion incidents in an entire state, even though they enroll a tiny fraction of the children. 

In recent years, for example, Massachusetts reported over 19,000 restraints in just 105 private special-education schools, compared with around 9,000 in all of its public schools. In Connecticut, almost half of all restraint and seclusion incidents reported in the entire state came from private schools that serve less than 4% of all students with disabilities. In California, two-thirds ­of all cases happened at private schools that served less than 1% of the state’s schoolchildren. 

Private school leaders say restraint and seclusion can be necessary to keep kids from harming themselves or others. They point out they often take kids with the most challenging behaviors, the ones that the public schools can’t — or won’t — serve. But many parents and advocates say too many private schools are dangerously overusing the physical interventions, and sometimes hurting kids in the process. 

“The thought of us literally paying our tax dollars to institutions that are affirmatively harming kids … is unacceptable,” said Annie Acosta, a public policy director at the Arc, a disability-rights advocacy network. 

Profit says that she would never have agreed to let her kids be placed outside of the public school system if she knew how discipline worked at High Road. 

“That was the worst mistake I ever made,” she said. 

Not every special ed school uses restraintsi: How ‘the most violent school’ ended the practice

A last resort?

There’s far more data available on restraint and seclusion in public schools than private schools. For nearly a decade, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has published the number of annual incidents for every public school. The data confirms a disturbing disparity in who is restrained: Only 15% of public school students are Black, but 25% of students who are restrained or secluded are Black. 

However, attempts to create similar national reporting requirements for private schools have faltered in Congress. Some states have passed their own laws covering public, and sometimes private, schools. At least four states — California, Virginia, New Hampshire and Maryland — have in the past five years started asking private schools to report restraint and seclusion data. 

Documents in this investigation: Read the data that is available

Connecticut is one of the few states that’s relatively transparent about restraint and seclusion in private schools, publishing the data for most private schools online. Yet Barbara Profit knew nothing about the data when she agreed to transfer her kids to High Road nine years ago. 

“I went along with it because at the time I didn’t know much about the school system, the way I know now,” she said.

Her family’s story shows what it’s like for children when restraint and seclusion go virtually unchecked at a private school.

Profit, 57, adopted Shirley Gay and her older brother, Tyllis, when they were infants. Shirley, 14, has struggled with mental illness since she was a baby. In addition to schizophrenia, she has been diagnosed with mild intellectual delays and oppositional defiant disorder, which makes her quick to anger. She had to be put into a psychiatric hospital in preschool, an experience her mother said was deeply traumatic for such a young child. Hospital records say the little girl suffered from frightening hallucinations and sometimes hit family members.

Although Shirley is a challenging child, she has a lot of strengths, Profit says. She’s friendly and curious, eager to chat with adults and ask questions. She’s a stylish dresser and has a new hairdo every week. She loves to sing and dance, especially in church; her favorite song is the gospel tune “Take Me to the King.” 

In 2011, at the urging of the school district, the siblings enrolled in High Road Academy of Wallingford. (They switched to High Road’s Norwalk campus, closer to home, in 2013.) Every child in those campuses is placed by a public school, and the company sees itself as an extension of the public school system. Connecticut taxpayers paid a little over $12 million in tuition and transportation expenses to High Road schools in 2018-19, according to information from a public records request.

For the first couple years at High Road, when the siblings were at the Wallingford campus, they did well. An evaluation from the school’s psychologist said Shirley “is very well liked by the staff for her charming demeanor” and that the school’s highly-structured environment gave her “a lot of comfort.” 

But in second grade, Shirley started getting more anxious and acting out because her family was moving to a new house. And school staff started restraining her more and more. Barbara Profit kept hundreds of pages of incident reports the school sent to notify her when Shirley was restrained or secluded, describing each incident in detail.  

When Shirley was eight, for instance, a staff member sent her to the school’s “time-out” room for being “off-task.” When she refused to walk to the room, the teacher told her she’d be physically escorted there. She started to run, so staff members put her into a standing restraint: an adult looped their arms through hers to create a body lock.  

“They put your arm like this,” Shirley explained years later, sticking her arms out behind her, “tie your arm behind your back and squeeze it tight. And it hurts your bones.”

When she started biting and kicking in the standing restraint, Shirley was pinned in a seated position on the floor. After that, staff put her in the seclusion room.  

That was one of the first of many such incidents, and it only grew worse when she moved to the High Road Norwalk campus for third grade. (The school has since been renamed High Road School of Fairfield County.)

Officials at Catapult Learning, the company that owns High Road and dozens of other schools across the country, say they cannot comment on the experiences of specific students because of educational privacy laws. However, school officials emphasized restraints where multiple adults hold a child on the floor, as Shirley sometimes experienced, are “not routine.” It’s much more common, they said, for a single staff member to hold a child’s arm to stop them from hitting themselves. Even such a light touch is still classified as a restraint.  

“These are highly trained professionals that are accustomed to working with students that have significant needs,” said Jeff Cohen, CEO of Catapult Learning. Restraint, he said, is “a last resort in all instances” after staff have tried other ways to de-escalate a situation. 

If it’s a last resort, it’s resorted to hundreds of times a year. The High Road School of Norwalk said it restrained a child or put one in seclusion 565 times in 2017-18, the most recent year data is available. The school only enrolls around 30 to 40 children. 

Anthony Davis, now 15, was one of Shirley’s classmates at High Road. He remembers seeing restraints happen “every day.” He attended the school in fifth and sixth grade because he had trouble controlling his anger, but what he experienced, he says, just made the anger worse. “Nobody wants to be touched. When I got touched, I got really angry, and sometimes I would try to fight back,” he said.

Sometimes, instead of feeling angry, he just felt helpless. He remembers how he stood in the hallway and watched one of his classmates cry during a restraint. 

“I felt bad, but I knew I couldn’t do nothing about it,” he said. 

Staff at High Road are trained in a nationally used technique called “Handle with Care,” meant to reduce the risk of injuries. Under Connecticut law, the seclusion rooms must have unbreakable windows and a special door that can only lock when a staff member is holding down the handle. This is so they can’t walk away from the room with a child locked inside. 

But even with training, kids still get hurt. 

One day, in June 2014, Shirley got in trouble for spitting food at a teacher. School and medical records show what happened next. She refused to walk to the seclusion room, so two staff members took hold of her and walked her there. She struggled against the staff members “with verbal and physical aggression,” according to the school’s report. Shirley was 8 years old at the time, stood 3’10” and weighed 44 pounds. She was put into a standing restraint. Then, she went limp.

Shirley was unresponsive for five minutes before she came to, according to what a school aide later told doctors. The school called an ambulance that took her to the emergency room. Doctors wrote she’d had a seizure.

All Shirley remembers is: “They were holding me down. And it was too much for me, it was too much, and then I passed out.”  

The school’s report failed to mention the trip to the emergency room. It said Shirley “appeared to fall asleep” and checked a box indicating there were no injuries. But Shirley’s chest hurt so badly, she had to go to the hospital again five days later. 

After this event, High Road staff restrained and secluded Shirley more and more. The seclusion rooms where Shirley was held were about the size of a closet, with windows on the door and a fluorescent light overhead. When a reporter visited last year, although the rest of the school was clean and bright, the walls of an isolation room were streaked with scratches and black marks. The door was scrawled with obscene graffiti. Shirley hated the rooms. Being held there “made me scared,” she recalled.

Sometimes, staff put Shirley into the seclusion rooms for dangerous behavior, like trying to climb out of a window or hitting her teachers. Other times, the danger was less obvious, like when she threatened to throw water at a teacher’s face or punched coats hanging on a wall.

High Road staff left Shirley in the seclusion rooms even when it put her into greater distress. One time, in November 2015, she went to one after disrupting class and pushing a teacher. She became upset in the room and started to beg: “Get me out of here, please open the door.” She cried out, “I want my mother.” She was kept in the room for 25 minutes. 

‘I would always scream for help’

As early as 2014, Profit met with staff at High Road to discuss why Shirley was being restrained and secluded so often. The school’s social workers and behavioral experts tried to address the problem and find the root cause of Shirley’s aggression, according to the school’s notes. Shirley says the restraints and seclusions themselves were part of what made her so on edge and quick to lash out.

“I didn’t want to be in the time-out room, and I didn’t want to be in that school,” she said. 

“Nobody likes to be locked in a room against their will,” her classmate Anthony agreed. “I always bugged out, because I hate being in small spaces. I would always scream for help.” 

He said he could often hear other children screaming in the isolation rooms too. Focusing in class was difficult. 

Profit doesn’t understand why Shirley kept getting restrained and put into the seclusion room, when it triggered such intense fear and anxiety. 

 “You know that it’s going to stay with them because they’re frightened, and it’s going to mess with their mind,” she said. “And you still sit there and keep doing it to them, over and over and over all day? That’s abuse.”

In total, over five years, High Road staff restrained Shirley at least 96 times and put her in seclusion 146 times. At least 25 of those restraints were prone, meaning she was face-down on the ground. Prone restraints are so dangerous that Connecticut banned the practice after July 2015. The school said it rarely used face-down restraints and stopped using them after that date. Her brother was restrained 11 times and isolated 35 times over the same period. 

It’s not surprising that Shirley got into a cycle of restraint and seclusion, says Lori Desautels, a professor of educational neuroscience at Butler University and a former special-education teacher. Restraint activates the body’s stress-response system, putting the child in a flight-or-fight mode that escalates the situation. Seclusion is particularly harmful, she said, because children learn how to regulate their emotions by following the cues of adults around them. If children are left alone at the height of their emotional crisis, they will never learn healthy ways to calm down. 

“When we isolate kids, what we’re doing is we are literally damaging their neurobiological responses,” she said. “And we are compromising the stress response system and damaging brain tissue.” 

The schools’ perspective

Private schools like High Road point out they often serve students with serious psychological issues and aggressive behavior that the public schools can’t address. In Connecticut, one-third of all students who are put into private placement in the state have a diagnosis of emotional disturbance. The sole purpose of restraint and seclusion, these schools say, is to keep students and teachers safe.

Some of High Road’s families say the schools have been a lifesaver. Brenda Dionne says her son Cameron, who has been diagnosed with emotional disturbance, is far happier now at the High Road School of Wallingford than he was at his old public school; there, she would often show up at school to find her child in handcuffs. “It’s been an ongoing battle since kindergarten, so we’re very grateful to High Road, and their staff is amazing,” she said. 

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Another school that defends restraint and seclusion is the Faison Center in Richmond, Virginia, which enrolls around 190 students with autism. In a single school year, 2017-18, Faison documented 968 incidents of restraint and 2,988 of seclusion. 

Faison officials say they report more than other schools because they track every single incident, even if it lasts just a few seconds. Still, these numbers are high even compared with other special education schools: Faison reported putting kids into isolation 10 times as much as any other private special education school licensed in the state of Virginia. 

At Faison, the most intense type of restraint involves at least four and up to eight adults holding a student face-up on the ground, while another staff member monitors. The large number of adults is necessary to hold down the student’s arms, legs and head, said Eli Newcomb, director of education. He said it is safer this way, because “more people means they’re going to use less force.”

Sarah Ratner has a son at Faison who is nonverbal and has autism. She knows her son has been restrained and secluded at the school, but she trusts it was for his own safety. “No one wants their child to be restrained or in a safety separation, but there are times he would really, really hurt himself without that intervention,” she said.

When told the school had almost 4,000 incidents in a year, she said, “Looking at those numbers without a context is completely unfair to this school and is not at all what all the parents I know here would say. This school takes in students that no other school will keep because of recurrent behavior problems.”

Officials from High Road and Faison point out they are being transparent about what other schools keep in the dark. A report last year from the Government Accountability Office chided many of the nation’s largest school districts, including New York City and the entire state of Hawaii, for falsely claiming they had no restraint or seclusion. 

“We take very seriously the responsibility to report these incidents,” said Cohen, of High Road parent Catapult Learning. “A lot of school systems just aren’t reporting at all.”

Private schools say banning seclusion, as Democrats in Congress have sought to do, would have unintended consequences. After Illinois passed an emergency ban on seclusion and some types of restraints, the Chicago Tribune reported some private schools said they would send children home because they could not guarantee their safety.

“If those procedures are banned, there are students who are going to find difficulty maintaining school placements,” said Danielle Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Private Special Education Centers. “We are concerned about things like the increased involvement of law enforcement and other agencies who aren’t necessarily trained to support students with these behavioral needs.” 

Activists who don’t believe in the use of restraint, however, don’t agree with that reasoning. They point out some schools with equally challenging students don’t use restraints at all — schools like Centennial in Pennsylvania, which serves students that have repeatedly failed or been kicked out of other schools due to behavior problems. Centennial went from over 1,000 restraints a year to zero after it shut down its seclusion room and overhauled the behavior management system to focus on avoiding restraints. 

How they did it: ‘The most violent’ special education school ended restraint and seclusion

“When people say, ‘We have to do this because these are really tough kids,’ I don’t buy that,” said Leslie Margolis, a lawyer for Disability Rights Maryland. “I don’t buy that when I hear stories of other places that have all but eliminated the use of restraint.”

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14-year-old Alex Campbell, who has autism, is one of the most powerful voices in the movement to better document and regulate restraint in schools.

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In Maryland, private special-education schools accounted for half of all reported restraint and seclusion incidents in both 2018 and 2019. Margolis argued private schools are supposed to have more expertise and training than public schools and therefore should be able to find alternatives that work.

“It’s blaming the person with a disability for the fact that people are using a traumatic, potentially deadly intervention with them,” she said, “rather than looking back and asking, ‘What can we, as staff, do differently?’”

A state that counted restraints – until it didn’t 

Despite the high numbers at schools like Faison and High Road, most states have been reluctant — or never even considered — monitoring private schools’ use of restraint and seclusion. California, where around 12,000 special education students have been placed by the state in “nonpublic schools,” used to require all schools to report use of restraint and seclusion. 

Yet in 2013, California lawmakers repealed those requirements in an effort to cut costs for districts. That was around the same time Anthony Corona started being restrained for his challenging behaviors at San Bernardino’s Bright Futures Academy, according to legal documents.

Anthony was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, and the San Bernardino School District referred him to the publicly-funded, privately-run Bright Futures when he was eight, in 2006. Bright Futures operates several campuses across Riverside and San Bernardino counties that serve students with autism and emotional disturbance. The school gets about $140 a day in public money per student, according to a 2017 contract.

Within a couple of years of starting at Bright Futures, Rosalia Muñoz said her grandson started coming home with the wrong clothes, missing shoes or minor scratches. When she called to demand an explanation, staff would say Anthony had soiled himself or gotten into a fight. They never received reports of restraints, the kind Shirley’s family received from High Road.

Rosalia Muñoz and Anthony’s aunt, Gloria Muñoz, said they nonetheless kept Anthony at Bright Futures because he always seemed excited to go to school. “He didn’t speak, so he couldn’t tell us what he liked and what he didn’t like,” Muñoz said. “But as soon as you mentioned school, he’d light up.” 

Family members say they never could have imagined what would happen to Anthony on a bus ride home from Bright Futures in December 2016.

Anthony, 18 at the time, began acting out on the bus, where he spent more than two hours a day harnessed to his seat, according to police records. Luis Bonilla, the bus driver, told police that Anthony’s seat harness was becoming loose, so he pulled over and helped two aides restrain the teen. Bonilla says he held Anthony’s upper body so that the teen’s head was placed between his legs. 

Anthony started yelling, “I’m done, I’m done,” and Bonilla released him. But he resumed the restraint when Anthony continued to struggle. A few minutes later, the teen’s body went limp. 

Bonilla tried to perform CPR, without success. Anthony was declared dead of asphyxiation at a nearby hospital. 

“If they would’ve just walked away, he would’ve calmed down,” said Gloria Muñoz. The family is now suing Bright Futures for assault, battery and wrongful death.   

Anthony’s family members said they were never notified of any incident of restraint during the 11 years he attended the school. Yet they’ve now realized that Anthony was restrained approximately 20 times, said Dale Nowicki, Muñoz’s lawyer, who discovered the incidents while reviewing police and school records for the family’s lawsuit.

Nowicki said the records of restraints go back to 2014, but there could have been even more “due to a lack of school reporting and their lack of communicating any problems to the family.”

The records show Anthony had been restrained in a similar way on the bus just a week before his death. Anthony’s grandmother said Bright Futures never reached out to the family for suggestions on how to calm Anthony down. 

“We never had to restrain him or call the police,” Muñoz said. “We only gave him time outs. Or sometimes he would need a hug, and then he’d calm down.”

Bright Futures President Betti Colucci declined to comment on Anthony’s case, due to pending litigation, but said the school’s restraint rate is “comparable” to that of other schools serving similar populations.

While it’s impossible to say what would have happened to Anthony if the reporting requirements hadn’t been repealed in 2013, his family members say the greater transparency could have alerted them to Bright Futures’ tactics well before his death — when there was still time to intervene on his behalf.  

Between 2015 and 2018, 21 out of 22 formal complaints in California about restraints and seclusions involved non-public schools like Bright Futures. 

To better understand the frequency of these incidents, lawmakers reinstated reporting requirements for private schools in 2018. 

Anthony’s aunt, Gloria Muñoz, said the state also should require schools with high rates of restraint to communicate actively with parents.

“I think if they had done that, Anthony would still be here,” said Muñoz. “Communicating with the parents is number one. There’s a lot of nonverbal children who can’t speak for themselves.”

Families make their complaints public

Yet even when families do speak up for their children, it doesn’t always lead to change. 

In May 2016, Barbara Profit and two other families went to a meeting of the Norwalk Board of Education and publicly accused the school of child abuse. They said their kids were coming home from High Road with bruises and scratches, according to local media reports and Board of Education minutes

Anthony Davis’ family was there. His grandmother said her grandson was held in seclusion so long he urinated on himself. “I didn’t pee on myself on purpose,” Anthony recently told a reporter. “I just couldn’t hold it anymore. They did that to a lot of kids.”

Regina Russell, Anthony Davis’s mom, said she was angry that the school could restrain her son with no consequences. If she had sent her son to school after similar treatment at home, “then you guys would call DCF on me,” she said in a recent interview, referring to the Department of Children and Families.

All of the families who complained that night were African-American. Brenda Penn-Williams, the president of the Norwalk NAACP and Profit’s friend, believes race factors into who is restrained in her state. 

“Just like what they did to George Floyd, they have a knee on our necks,” she said. 

People with disabilities experience discrimination, too: They’re protesting police violence, COVID-19 discrimination

Anthony, however, said he did not notice racial discrimination at High Road. “Everybody basically got restrained there,” he said. 

In the week after Barbara Profit took her complaints public, Shirley was restrained five times at school. She got suspended at the end of that week and never went back. Anthony left High Road as well.

In response to the parents’ concerns, the state Department of Education launched an investigation of what happened at High Road. The final report found no evidence the school “abused or intentionally caused harm to any of the students” or inappropriately used restraint or seclusion. Investigators also reviewed injury reports that High Road itself had submitted to the state Department of Education and found “no serious injuries (beyond basic first aid)” to the students whose families had complained. 

The report says investigators interviewed parents, but Profit said they never spoke to her. Otherwise, they would have known about Shirley’s trip to the emergency room. (Russell said she could not remember if investigators spoke to her.) Similar investigations from the police and child protective services were also closed. 

Feinstein, the special-education lawyer, said he’s not surprised the investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing at High Road. “Our state department is the burial ground for any serious investigation,” he said. 

In 2019, an evaluation team from the Connecticut Department of Education visited the Norwalk campus as part of the re-approval process that happens every five years. The ensuing evaluation report made no mention of previous allegations and no recommendations regarding reducing restraint or seclusion. It warmly commended the school for making “significant efforts to infuse trauma-informed care and mindfulness practices with a behavior oriented model.”

Shirley, Tyllis, and Anthony are all back in public school in Norwalk. Profit says even years later, her kids still show signs of trauma from what happened at High Road. Shirley can’t stand being alone. Even when she takes a bath, she leaves the door open a crack to feel safe. She yearns for attention, but she’s also mistrustful and quick to anger. Her brain, Profit says, is still in fight-or-flight mode.

Anthony, however, said he was surprised to see how differently his old classmate Shirley acted when he saw her again in high school. When she was at High Road, “she would always have a mean face, because she was just so angry there.” In public school, he finally saw her cheerful, friendly side. “She’d actually have a smile on her face.”

Shirley agreed that she’s been doing better in public school. In an interview before the coronavirus pandemic closed schools, she listed off the things that made her happy: “I have friends, I have art, I have music.” And, she added: “They don’t have time-out rooms there. Thank God.”

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