Julie Quill said she knew something wasn't right when her son Shawn, 11, came home from his Boston-area school one day last year with a cut lip and a limp.
"Shawn isn't verbal so he couldn't tell me what was going on," Quill said of her son, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2.
Quill was surprised to find out that her son's injuries were caused by his teacher, who would apparently hit and slap him and try to restrain him.
She claims that the teacher's use of physical restraint on her son was unwarranted, and believes it was not used as a last resort, as outlined by Massachusetts' policy on restraint in schools, but as a means to quickly quell her son's outbursts.
"Teachers should not have the right to restrain a child as punishment," Quill said.
It was stories like Quill's, as well as those of hundreds of other families nationwide, that prompted Congress to investigate the use of restraint and seclusion in U.S. schools.
According to a report released today by the Government Accountability Organization, the widespread use of the often violent and abusive techniques of restraining or secluding students with special needs has led to hundreds of fatalities and injuries of American school children in the past two decades.
Of the hundreds of cases the GAO reviewed, at least 20 instances of restraint or seclusion resulted in the death of a child.
The report will be the focal point of a hearing in Washington, D.C., today before the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor, which is meeting to examine whether the seclusion and restraint of students should be banned by federal law.
In his remarks, committee chairman Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., described the report's findings as "alarming" and "eye opening."
"Recent news reports document appalling stories of teachers tying children to chairs, taping their mouths shut, using handcuffs, denying them food, fracturing bones, locking them in small dark spaces, and sitting on them until they turn blue," Miller said.
"One might start to wonder what could possibly cause a teacher or classroom aide to abuse a child this way. Well, we know what these children did: They fidgeted in their chairs or they were unwilling to follow directions."
"This behavior that does, in some instances, look like torture of young children certainly is so inconsistent with our beliefs about our public institution that it's hard for people to come to grasps with," said Miller.
Miller went on to say that these typical, child-like behaviors, many of which are exaggerated because of a child's disability, should not be met with restraint by teachers and school administrators and that appropriate training and resources should be used instead to create a positive learning environment.
"Families should never be left wondering whether their child is safe in the care of their school," said Miller, who called for Congress to step in and enact federal policy to stop the practice in schools.
Today's hearing was spurred by a report published in January by the National Disability Rights Network, which canvassed 56 states and territories in the United States and found many examples of hard-to-manage students who've been injured or killed at school.