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"
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.
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.
In some schools, similar outbursts have brought a muscular response from school staff. According to a 2009-2010 study by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, students with disabilities are disproportionally restrained or secluded in school. In reviewing 85 percent of the nation's students, the study found students with disabilities represent 12 percent of students in the sample, but accounted for nearly 70 percent of the students who are physically restrained by adults in their schools.
Many of Centennial's students come from schools where they say they were restrained face down by school staff, locked in tiny, cell-like "scream rooms" for hours and bound with string around their hands or feet if they misbehaved or refused to do their work. Public and private schools across the country use these techniques as a means of discipline and punishment. Centennial school doesn't believe restraining and secluding children will change their behavior.
George says the techniques are unnecessary and only used at Centennial in the most dire circumstances and when there is imminent threat to the student, teacher or others.
Several students from Centennial shared with ABC News what they said were their experiences at other schools. Nine-year-old Bobby Mullen recalled the fear he felt after he misbehaved in class. "They had this really big man that would pin me to the ground," recalled Mullen. "It really hurt."
Ethan Shumway, 14, remembers suffering harsh consequences when he took a break from his schoolwork. "They would immediately put you in a restraint," Ethan claimed. "They would literally just lay on top of you, you can't move and it's really hard to breath."
At her previous school, 11-year-old Jordan Peterson said she was dragged by the wrists and put in a seclusion room after she would get upset and start yelling. "They'd lock you in there and it was dark, there's no windows, and you're just stuck there for the whole day," Peterson recalled. "No one there with you, you felt scared. Even for the bravest person in the world, it's still really scary."
"I've been restrained many times," said 10-year-old Dayne Cruz. "They actually hurt and I get really angry from that. It isn't a very pleasant thing to be restrained."
The use of restraints and seclusion rooms has been increasingly controversial, especially as high-profile cases spark outrage and media attention. That occurred when the mother of a Kentucky boy with autism came to school to discover her son in what looked like a duffle bag, but was a specially designed bag, with airholes, for restraining children. A Mississippi community voiced complaints when a school there was found to be handcuffing children to a stair railing. The principal said it was to keep unruly students from dashing off campus and into a busy street.
In Arizona and Washington State, parents voiced anger when they discovered their children were being locked in so-called "scream rooms," often for hours at a time.
In 2009, Rep. George Miller, D.-California, began pushing federal legislation that would enact strict national guidelines around the use of physical restraints and seclusion in schools.
"There are thousands and thousands of children that have been traumatized, that have been injured at the hands of the caregiver and it's just unacceptable," Miller said. "My quest is to make these children safe."
The bill, along with the one proposed in the Senate by Sen. Tom Harkin, D.-Iowa, is being vigorously opposed by education lobbyists who believe restraint and seclusion rooms are essential tools for schools serving students with disabilities.
"[The students are] emotionally disturbed, they have behavioral issues and they act out," said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "When they do act out, sometimes they become a danger to themselves or a danger to others. Are you going to totally remove the tool that can effectively deal with youngsters that act out?"
While it's not completely opposed to federal legislation, Domenech said the AASA believes the current proposed federal legislation is unreasonable and would restrict schools' abilities to provide the safest and most effective learning environment for children.
"We don't want a law that will now have staff stand by and do nothing when a child is hurting themselves or others," Domenech said. "If the federal government is going to come in with rules and regulations, then they need to also come in with providing the resources to train staff so that those rules and regulations can be properly implemented."
George of the Centennial School testified in support of the legislation at a Congressional hearing recently, saying restraint and seclusion techniques aren't tools schools need to address and improve student behavior. He told the Congressional panel that other techniques are safer, preserve the learning environment and teach students effective problem-solving skills.
George said before he arrived at Centennial in 1998, the school was loud and at times violent, with students screaming and pounding on time-out room walls and teachers raising their voices. George said the year before he arrived, teachers employed restraint techniques 1064 times, typically using a "basket hold," which often involved two to three adults subduing a child.
"It was a very reactive system," recalls Dr. George. "It's in many schools today. The aim was to punish children out of their misbehavior."
George said he joined the school with the idea that children with autism and other children with special needs could learn, make good choices and be accountable for their behaviors if adults would take the time to teach them. Centennial got rid of the seclusion "time out" rooms and within six months virtually eliminated the use of physical restraints.
"If a teacher feels there is an imminent threat to their safety or to the safety of others, they can use physical restraint," George said. "That we haven't done it in a long time, I think, is a testimony to the power of the techniques we have in place."
All teachers and staff at Centennial are trained on the proper used of physical restraint. The state of Pennsylvania, where the school is located, is one of four states that bans all forms of seclusion and one of 11 where state law limits restraint to emergencies involving an immediate risk of physical harm, according to a report authored by Jessica Butler of The Autism National Committee. The report, called "How Safe is the Schoolhouse?", notes there are only 17 states with laws providing meaningful protections for all students against restraint and seclusion.
Many argue the patchwork of laws, statues and policies across the country contributes to the problem and speaks to the needs for a uniform national standard. Until such a law is agreed upon, students at schools like Centennial take solace in knowing they will not be subjected to harsh treatment for acting out in class.
"This should be a safe place, a place where children want to come to learn, to build relationships with one another and with their teachers," George said. "I can't believe that anything we are doing in schools is important enough to take a person's life."