Pa. School Controls Classrooms Without Harsh Restraints

Autistic, special needs students at Centennial recall treatment at other schools

ByABC News
December 3, 2012, 1:52 PM

Dec. 3, 2012 — -- With an alarming number of autistic and disabled children being injured and killed in American schools by teachers using harsh methods to subdue unruly students, a suburban Philadelphia school has been pioneering a different lesson plan -- controlling the classroom without getting physical.

The Centennial School in Bethlehem, Pa., prohibits physical restraints and seclusion in so called "time-out" rooms as a means of disciplining or subduing its students, many of whom have a history of disruptive behavior. Instead, the K-12 school uses a positive behavioral model to redirect those children who act out.

"We've put in place many strategies that prevent the occurrence of violent and aggressive behavior," said Dr. Michael George, executive director of the Centennial School. "We're training our teachers to observe student behavior in its most discreet form, to look for those signs of agitation"

WATCH an interview with Dr. George.

An ABC News investigation found that in schools across the country, dozens of students with special needs have died and thousands more have been injured after being physically restrained by school staff or left alone in seclusion rooms as punishment. According to advocates for students with disabilities, at least 75 students have died over the past decade as a result of being restrained or being locked in seclusion rooms.

WATCH the 'Nightline' report on 'Deadly Discipline.'

PHOTOS: Kids Hurt, Killed by Restraints at School

Each of the students at Centennial has a history of inappropriate and sometimes violent behavior that prevents them from attending public school. But not even the most egregious behavior at Centennial will find them restrained face-down on their stomachs or locked in a tiny padded room for hours.

"Restraints don't teach you anything," George said. "It actually causes that child to act more aggressive. It disrupts the entire learning environment. The model we use in this program is one of prevention, so that we can prevent the occurrence and the development of antisocial behavior."

An ABC News camera captured the Centennial approach recently, as nine-year-old Vinny became disruptive in class and began screaming, throwing items, and jumping on his chair and desk. He even took a swing at a teacher as she tried speaking with him to understand his frustrations. Vinny was separated from his classmates, taken to the other side of the room and reminded to use calm, positive words to communicate his needs instead of negative body actions. He was never restrained or put in a so-called "time out" or "scream" room.

"We use replacement behavior strategies where we teach children what to do differently so they know that they don't need to aggress or use a screaming voice to get across," said Kelly Price, a teacher at Centennial.

Vinny, who is autistic, requested a break from class where he could spend time alone. Once he was calm he politely asked to speak with Price in her office where she praised him for using appropriate words and body language to communicate his needs.

"What we did was work out a plan, really an action plan as part of our problem-solving approach," explained Price. "It may take a while and there may be more energy in the beginning, but it's certainly better than me putting my hands on him. We know that's not going to work." After about 25 minutes Vinny was calm enough to rejoin his class.

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