Senators Demand Schools End 'Scream Rooms' For Troubled Kids

Harkin investigation linked child deaths, injury to padded seclusion rooms.

ByAngela M. Hill and Matthew Mosk
February 12, 2014, 10:03 AM

Feb. 12, 2014 — -- A U.S. Senate report is calling for legislation that would end the use of padded "scream rooms" to discipline children in schools, saying educators across the country are continuing to use potentially unsafe and abusive forms of restraint in the classroom.

"Use of either seclusion or restraints in non-emergency situations poses significant physical and psychological danger to students," the report by the staff of the key education committee in the Senate concluded.

The Senate findings mirror those in a 2012 ABC News investigation which found that thousands of autistic and disabled schoolchildren had been injured and dozens died after being restrained by poorly trained teachers and school aides who tried to subdue them using at times unduly harsh techniques.

In-Depth ABC News Investigation: Death at School

The ABC News investigation found that with no agreed upon national standards for how teachers can restrain an unruly child, school officials around the country had been employing a wide array of methods that range from sitting on children, to handcuffing them, even jolting them with an electric shock at one specialized school. Some had locked children in padded rooms for hours at a time. One Kentucky teacher's aide was alleged to have stuffed 9-year-old Christopher Baker, who is autistic and was swinging a chair around him, into a draw-string duffle bag.

The staff of the senate committee led by Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, highlighted cases characterized as disturbing. They included:

The Senate investigation also found that, under current law, "a family whose child has been injured, experienced trauma, or, in the worst case, has died as a result of the use of seclusion or restraints practices in a school has little or no recourse through school procedures or the courts."

"In fact, the investigation found that only eighteen states currently require parents be notified about the use of seclusion or restraints," the report said.

VIDEO: Go Inside a 'Scream Room'

Efforts to pass legislation that would create a national standard for the use of restraint has been opposed by a number of groups representing teachers and school officials.

Daniel A. Domenech, who heads the American Association of School Administrators, could not be reached Monday to discuss the senate investigation. In an ABC News interview in 2012, Domenech 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."

One of the educators consulted by the committee in crafting new legislation to address concerns about school seclusion, said there are better, safer ways to handle unruly children. Dr. Michael George, Director of the Centennial School in Bethlehem, Penn., said the use of seclusion rooms and restraining techniques are largely unnecessary.

"I can't imagine anything more frustrating as a parent than having a child who has problems and the people you send your child to are making matters worse," George told ABC News.

RELATED: Students Recall Harsh Discipline at Schools

He said the new legislation would place an emphasis on parents' right to know what disciplinary methods are being used on their children.

"It's going to take an enormous amount of training and awareness," he said. "We need stronger regulations in place to force the issue of training. I don't know that waiting for teachers and administrators to educate themselves on this issue is going to happen. And that's where the real value of this legislation is going to come."

Sheila Foster, whose 16-year-old son Corey Foster was killed after being restrained by staff members of his Yonkers, New York school because he allegedly refused to leave the basketball court, said she is glad efforts to create a national standard for discipline are continuing.

"I would like to see an end to the use of restraint," Foster said. "My son died as a result of being restrained and while nothing's going to change his death, ending restraint would make it better for other children."

Leslie Noyes' eight-year-old son was secluded in a small, padded "scream room" for hours at a time on numerous occasions in his former Phoenix, Ariz. elementary classroom.

"There are more restrictions and regulations in hospitals and in mental institutions on how people are treated, so why not for our children in schools," Noyes remarked. "It's never ok to lock a child up in seclusion."

Noyes advises other parents to remain aware about what's going on in their children's school. "I encourage parents to ask their schools if they have a policy on restraint and seclusion and for the school to give it to them in writing," Noyes said. "I also tell parents to put in writing that the school does not have permission to put their child in seclusion or to restrain them."

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