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.
Restraining Students Focus of Hearings
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.
The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group defines restraint as any method of immobilizing or reducing the ability of an individual to move his or her arms, legs, body or head freely. Prone restraint, considered one of the most dangerous forms, is when an adult holds a child's face on the floor while pressing down on the child's back.
Seclusion, often implemented in the form of a time-out room or chair, is defined as the involuntary confinement of an individual alone in a room where they are prevented from leaving.
Toni Price, one of the mothers testifying at today's hearing, said that it was prone restraint that resulted in the death of her 14-year-old foster son Cedric in 2002 in his eighth-grade Texas classroom.
"I want to make sure this doesn't happen to anyone else's child," Price said. "It is awful the way Cedric died. He was a good kid. This should have never happened. The morning Cedric died, as he was boarding the bus he turned around and got a beaming smile on his face, and said to me, 'You know I love you, ma.'"
Cedric suffered from behavioral problems after being neglected and abused by his biological family for much of his young life, Price said.
Hours before his death, Price said that Cedric had acted out, stealing candy and refusing to sit still in his chair. His behavior did not warrant what came next, Price argues.
Mother Testifies About Son's Death
"After Cedric attempted to leave the classroom, he refused to sit back down in his chair so his teacher forced him into his chair and restrained him," Price said. "She is roughly six feet tall and weighs well over 200 pounds. Cedric was short. He was a little boy.
"Cedric struggled as he was being held in his chair, so the teacher put him in a face down, or in a prone restraint, and sat on him," she said. "He struggled and said repeatedly, 'I can't breathe.' 'If you can speak, you can breathe,' she snapped at him."
Soon after, the paramedics were called to the school and Cedric was pronounced dead.
Price said that she had never been told restraint techniques were being used on her son nor was she ever asked to address the behavior Cedric's teachers deemed worthy of restraint.
The teacher involved in Cedric's death never faced criminal charges, according to Price's testimony, and is now teaching special education in Virginia.
Reece Peterson, a special education professor at the University of Nebraska who testified at today's hearing, said he does not believe the law should ban the use of restraints but should focus instead on improving training for teachers.
"We don't want a situation where teachers can't touch the kids at all," Peterson said. "Schools feel responsible for the kids they serve and try to protect them as best they can."
Peterson called the decision on how to respond to a child's outburst a "delicate balance" and recounted two incidents in which parents sued because restraint was used on their children, as well as a case in which a school was sued for not restraining a child.
"Schools are in a bind," Peterson said.
Glenn Koocher, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, is against a federal ban on restraint in schools that he says is necessary for administrators to preserve safety for everyone.
"This is not an appropriate area for lawmakers, this is something that administrators need to develop to protect students," Koocher said.
"Teachers need to have the ability under clearly outlined protocol to restrain children," he said.
When asked about the possibility of abuse, Koocher told ABCNews.com that it is "a reasonable risk we have to take."
"We always have the danger that someone will over-respond to a situation," he said. "But there are students who legitimately post a threat to other students and the supervising adults and others have to able to restrain them under appropriate guidelines."
Stephanie Petska, the state director of special education in Wisconsin, said that she wants the policy to remain as is, where certain forms of restraint and seclusion are permitted only as a "last resort" for teachers who have tried more "positive interventions" first without success.
Some Parents Favor Restraining Students
Asked whether parents have ever expressed concern that teachers in Wisconsin may not be properly trained to know when it is appropriate to use restraint, Petska said that they have not. Petska says she has heard the opposite, parents who say that they're worried an outburst by another child may hurt their own kid.
"I have had conversations with parents who are worried about their child in a classroom with another child who might become violent," said Petska, who suggested that those parents who have "deep-seeded issues with the use of restraint" look into alternative learning environments. Petska said that the child's Individualized Education Program, which includes the parent, should work to determine "an appropriate program and placement" for the child.
But for one mother in upstate New York who asked that her name not be published, alternatives aren't always possible when it comes to special education.
"There was no other place for me to enroll my son," she said of her small, rural hometown. "I did worry about my son getting really hurt; it's very, very scary," she said. "This kind of restraint and seclusion is like a practice out of the dark ages."
But the National Disability Rights Network argues that every parent, even those who have not encountered restraint or seclusion first-hand, should be aware of what goes on behind the doors of their local schools.
"We try to capture in our report the little school down the street and the kids walking by your house," Curt Decker, the network's executive director, said.
"You don't know, there might be a seclusion room or some dreadful things happening in your neighborhood school."