Child Abuse at Schools and Institutions Linked to Improper Use of Restraint

A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) describes hundreds disturbing reports involving serious injuries and even deaths related to child abuse at schools and institutions where children were improperly restrained and secluded.

Gregory D. Kutz, Managing Director of Forensic Audits and Special Investigations for the GAO, testified before the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor on May 19, detailing cases of child abuse caused by the improper use of restraint techniques. The agency also found that special needs children were particularly vulnerable.

The GAO looked at cases over the past 20 years, identifying instances of institutional or school abuse involving restraint injuries. There are currently no federal guidelines on the use of restraint techniques on children, and the report points to a large disparity between existing policies among different states.

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The report was conducted at the behest of U.S. Rep George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the committee, and focused specifically on ten incidents of child abuse; four of them leading to fatalities.

In one case, a 14-year old student was killed at a Texas public middle school after the boy was physically held down until he suffocated. The report indicates that he had also been denied food for several hours before the incident.

Although the death was ruled a homicide and the teacher was placed on a Texas state list for child abusers, the teacher was able to move to Virginia and continue teaching K-12 special needs children until her involvement came to light as a result of the GAO investigation. The teacher has now been placed on leave.

In all four of the fatality cases investigated, teachers or staff members used restraining techniques on children that restricted the flow of air to their lungs.

Miller said the report showed that federal legislation needs to be enacted, regulating the use of such procedures, and the Obama administration pledged to meet with stakeholders to address the abuses.

“GAO’s report shows that in too many cases, a child’s life wound up being threatened even though that child was not a threat to others,” Miller said in a statement released by the committee. “This behavior, in some instances, looks like torture. The current situation is unacceptable and cannot continue.”

There have been several successful child abuse lawsuits against schools and other institutions in relation to the improper use of restraint, according to the GAO report.

In 2003, the mother of a 15-year old autistic student reached a $1.3 million settlement with a Michigan public school after her son died while being restrained in a prone position on his stomach. The incident occurred while the school staff was punishing the student, who had suffered a seizure and lost control of his extremities.

Another case involving an incident that occurred at a West Virginia public school, resulted in a $460,000 jury award after a 4-year old student with cerebral palsy was bound to a chair with leather straps. The girl suffered bruising and post traumatic stress disorder. Although the school district and teachers were found to be negligent in the incident, at least one of the teachers continued to work at the school at the time the GAO report was prepared.


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