A proposed law designed to prevent child abuse in schools has been lauded by children's protection advocates, and slammed by House Republicans as an unnecessary expansion of federal government power.
The House of Representatives last week passed the Keeping All Students Safe Act, which for the first time sets minimum national standards for practices such as the use "seclusion rooms" or forced restraint of unruly students.
The bill would ban the use of "mechanical restraints" such as tying children to furniture, and would allow seclusion and physical restraint to be used only when there is "imminent danger of injury and only when imposed by trained staff."
Though the bill was a bipartisan effort in reaction to a government report last year that found "hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and death" related to the practices, it was opposed by a vast majority of Republicans, who said the bill amounted to an intrusion on states' rights and the ability of local school districts to determine their own policies.
In all, 145 Republicans and eight Democrats voted against the bill last week, which will have to get the Senate's and the president's approval to become law.
Rep. Steve King (R-IA) suggested on the House floor last week that the bill would lead to a federal takeover of the education system.
"It’s one thing after another after another after another, and pretty soon its a national curriculum with federal mandates, and imposing cultural impositions at the school level in every accredited district in the country," he said.
"I know it's not the intent of this bill," said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), "but the underlying message is you people back in your states and local school boards and local governments are a bunch of morons. You can't figure out that sitting on a precious little child and killing them is inappropriate."
Gohmert's reference to "sitting on a child" comes from an example that the bill's sponsors, Rep. George Miller (D-CA) and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), used to draw attention to the problem of child abuse in schools.
In an op-ed for CNN last December, Miller and Rodgers wrote of a 14-year-old student in Texas who died after a teacher put him in a mechanical restraint that restricted his breathing.
Cedric's teacher delayed his lunch for hours to discipline him for refusing to do his work. When he wouldn't comply, his teacher put him in a face down restraint and sat on him in front of his classmates. Cedric said repeatedly that he could not breathe. He died minutes later on the classroom floor.
Cedric's tragic story isn't an isolated case in America's schools today.
A report from the Government Accountability Office, released last year, found "hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and death related to the use of these methods on school children during the past two decades."
Examples of these cases include a 7 year old purportedly dying after being held face down for hours by school staff, 5 year olds allegedly being tied to chairs with bungee cords and duct tape by their teacher and suffering broken arms and bloody noses, and a 13 year old reportedly hanging himself in a seclusion room after prolonged confinement.
The GAO report (PDF) noted that children with disabilities are especially vulnerable to abuse.
For example, teachers restrained a 4 year old with cerebral palsy in a device that resembled a miniature electric chair because she was reportedly being “uncooperative.”….Teachers confined [a 9 year old with learning disabilities] to a small, dirty room 75 times over the course of 6 months for offenses such as whistling, slouching, and hand waving….In another case, a residential day school implemented a behavior plan, without parental consent, that included confining an 11-year-old autistic child to his room for extended periods of time, restricting his food, and using physical restraints. The child was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder as a result of this treatment.
Writing at the Solitary Watch blog, James Ridgeway and Jean Casella report that currently only 23 US states have laws on the books restricting the use of solitary confinement and restraints on students, while another seven states have "weak" protections. The reporters cite a Department of Education report (PDF) that concludes "[p]olicies, or the lack thereof, vary widely: Vermont, for example, has no formal guidelines governing how schools can restrain students, while Nevada has 'stringent' requirements about specific conditions under which restraint can be used, as well as a formal process for filing violations."
While Republicans stood firmly against the proposed law, children's protection advocates applauded the move.
"This legislation is a major stride forward in establishing federal policies to protect students and guide school personnel in ensuring classrooms are safe places for all," said Tony Jace, chief executive officer of the Crisis Prevention Institute.
The following compilation video was posted to YouTube by MediaMatters on March 3, 2010.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/v/D-f0Anm7f9Q&hl=en_US&fs=1& expand=1]