Restraints and seclusion in schools / by Erich Kofmel

On 4 April 2016, Autistic Minority International organized a World Autism Awareness Day side event and thematic briefing on "Autistic behaviours and the use of physical and mechanical restraints and seclusion in schools" for the expert members of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Our speakers were Briannon Lee and Michelle Sutton, co-conveners of the Autistic Family Collective (Australia), Riki Entz, chapter co-leader of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (Canada), and Helena Stephenson, a survivor of restraint and seclusion in school and campaigner against their continued use in the United States.

Rationale: Education is not inclusive when students with disabilities, such as autistic children, are subjected to restrictive practices or aversive procedures/interventions, including physical, mechanical, and chemical restraint and seclusion/isolation, in special and regular schools alike, for the purpose of managing and modifying their behaviour and enforcing discipline and compliance. Children with disabilities are restrained by teachers and other school staff by being pinned to the floor, tied down to a chair, taped to the wall, and so on. Students may be locked into seclusion rooms, closets, or cages frequently and for lengthy periods of time, with no way of escape. Often they are unable to communicate the abuse, and parents will not be informed. Children have died, and post-traumatic stress is common in adult survivors.

From Erich Kofmel's opening and chairing remarks: "In 2013, your Committee noted in its Concluding Observations on Australia 'that persons with disabilities, particularly those with intellectual impairment or psychosocial disability, are subjected to unregulated behaviour modification or restrictive practices such as chemical, mechanical and physical restraints and seclusion, in various environments, including schools, mental health facilities and hospitals'. Unfortunately, the Committee then missed the opportunity to recommend a ban on restraints and seclusion in schools, and instead recommended the abolition of 'intrusive medical interventions' only, disregarding that restraints and seclusion in schools serve no medical purpose, but rather aim at managing and modifying students' behaviour and enforcing discipline and compliance.

"Autistic students are at a particular risk of becoming the victims of such abusive, degrading, and torturous restrictive practices or aversive procedures or interventions, be it in special or regular schools. With the General Comment on inclusive education, you now have an opportunity to rectify the previous omission and protect these children. We urge the Committee to add a paragraph to the General Comment rejecting the use of restraints and seclusion in schools. Our speakers today will tell you why. [...]

"There is no excuse for violence by teachers and school staff against students with disabilities.

"[In] the United States, [...] restraints and seclusion were used at least 267,000 times in the school year 2011-12. There were 163,000 instances of restraint and 104,000 of seclusion. In 75 percent of the cases, it was kids with disabilities who were restrained or secluded. In less than 7 percent of the incidents reported was the child considered 'violent'. Over 70 percent of the incidents reported the child as 'non-compliant' before the incident occurred. Many US students have died because of restraints and seclusion, such as Jonathon King, who had spent so much time in a seclusion room at his school that he had told them he was going to kill himself if they put him back in there. On Jonathon's final day, he was placed in seclusion because his pants were too big. The school gave him a rope to hold his pants up, but put him in the seclusion room regardless. Jonathon hung himself from the seclusion room door with the very rope the school gave him."

Unfortunately, the USA hasn't ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which means that the CRPD Committee isn't able to comment on this practice there. But they are able to comment on its use in countries such as Australia, the UK, and Canada.

Subsequent to our side event, the Committee did indeed include a reference to restraints and seclusion in its General Comment No. 4 on the right to inclusive education, adopted in August 2016:

"51. Persons with disabilities, in particular women and girls with disabilities, can be disproportionately affected by violence and abuse, including physical and humiliating punishments by educational personnel, for example through the use of restraints and seclusion and bullying by others in and en route to school. To give effect to article 16 (2), States parties are required to take all appropriate measures to provide protection from and prevent all forms of exploitation, violence and abuse, including sexual violence, against persons with disabilities. Such measures must be age-, gender- and disability-sensitive. The Committee strongly endorses the recommendations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that States parties prohibit all forms of corporal punishment and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in all settings, including schools, and ensure effective sanctions against perpetrators. It encourages schools and other educational centres to involve students, including students with disabilities, in the development of policies, including accessible protection mechanisms, to address disciplinary measures and bullying, including cyberbullying, which is increasingly recognized as a growing feature of the lives of students, in particular children."

The General Comment also includes two references (paragraphs 6 and 35 d-f) to autism and inclusive education. Unfortunately, most of the issues we raised from the autistic perspective during the consultation phase on this General Comment weren't addressed.