Compounding the problem, some experts believe, is the lack of federal standards for how or when teachers should safely restrain an unruly or violent student. An advocacy group for parents of autistic children found that only 30 states have any laws governing the safe use of restraint on children, and many of those "have loopholes that allow restraint to be used with little limitation." Lobbyists for school administrators have opposed recent efforts by Congress to establish clear federal rules, arguing that decisions about students should be made by school officials, not political leaders. Lawmakers told ABC News they are deeply troubled by recent high-profile incidents, including those a child being locked in a padded "scream room" in Arizona, and other children being handcuffed to railings in a Mississippi school gym.
"I'm appalled by it," said Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat who proposed legislation that would create a uniform standard on restraint for the nation's schools – legislation that has failed to even receive a committee vote over the past three years.
Until recently, Miller said, no organization even knew the number of deaths that were occurring on school grounds. He said several advocacy groups spent years tried to assess the toll. The Coalition Against Institutionalized Child Abuse, an advocacy group, used public records to tally 75 child deaths between 1988 and 2006 that stemmed from the improper use of restraints. A California disability rights organization, Protection and Advocacy, Inc., counted 39 deaths in just that state between 1999 and 2007, all resulting from the use of seclusion or behavioral restraints. A 2009 study by federal auditors reported hundreds of instances between 1990 and 2009 where improper restraint led to injuries, and another study that same year, by the National Disability Rights Network, chronicled dozens of specific cases of young children, many of them autistic, being suffocated or badly injured while being improperly restrained.
"I almost didn't believe the information that we first received from the disability networks," Miller said. "The belief that this was happening to children in institutions, in schools where parents drop them off and expect that they will be kept safe and then all of a sudden you find out that you, your child's life is endangered and in fact your child has been killed."
Daniel A. Domenech, who heads the American Association of School Administrators, said the practice of restraining an out-of-control student is an unwelcome but essential part of keeping teachers and other students safe. And the vast majority of the time, he said, school officials are able to subdue a child without harm coming to anyone.
"What do they do when the child begins to hurt themselves or when they attack another child?" he asked. "Do they just stand there and watch? They don't. They intervene."
Domenech, who once oversaw the schools in Fairfax County, Virginia, said he agrees that more training is needed to prevent teachers from restraining children in ways that are dangerous. He winced when told of schools that stuffed children in sacks or used duct tape to restrain them.
"Restraint is something that we won't see or don't want to see put in place unless it is absolutely necessary," Domenech said. "But the problem is the training. The problem is the training."