Two weeks ago, my elementary school principal, Ernie Ross, passed away. Mr. Ross was my principal for 3rd, 4th and 5th grades at Mountain View Elementary school. I, like many of my classmates, had great fear of Mr. Ross. He manned a stop light in the lunch room that would move from green to yellow to red as the noise level rose during the lunch period. At times he would walk around the lunchroom carrying his paddle. Rumors abounded among my classmates about Mr. Ross’s accuracy and strength in utilizing his paddle. He was rumored to have a paddle with holes to make the swing swifter.
I was deathly afraid of him. I had been spanked at home, and was quite intimate with the effects of my father’s belt. The belt, however, was the limit of my experience with spanking implements. I imagined the paddle, and especially the paddle with holes was 10 times worse. Although never said, I knew if I got spanked at school, the school punishment would be the least of my problems. I’m sure I would have been one with my father’s belt.
Once, in 4th grade, I was sent to Mr. Ross’s office. I was often quick at completing my school work, and when bored would start chit-chatting with the kids nearby. Despite several warnings from my teacher, Mrs. Coffey, I continued to talk away. Mrs. Coffey didn’t have many options for punishment. I already had to stay in most recesses because I couldn’t pass the stupid multiplication time test with 100% accuracy. Fed up, she ordered me to go see Mr. Ross. I don’t think I was ever so frightened in my entire school career. I was sure I was going to experience the paddle, and I felt like throwing up. When I got to the office, the school secretary told me to sit on a bench outside Mr. Ross’s office. I sat, and sat, and sat. With each passing minute, my fear grew. I never did see Mr. Ross that day, and after a period of time, I was sent back to my classroom. The experience remains vivid in my mind 30 years later.
Today I was reading a New York Times article about the decline of corporal punishment in schools. Colorado is among the states where the practice is still legal, but rarely used. Many states, including Texas and New Mexico are considering bans of the practice during the current legislative season. In Colorado, not only is corporal punishment by schools legal, but parents can also use corporal punishment, with some limits. Despite the law allowing corporal punishment, the first thing that happens in most child protection cases is that the court orders the parent(s) to not use any physical discipline. Foster parents are also not allowed to use physical discipline.
The hypocrisy of all this struck me as I was reading the Times article. The states that are banning the practice are doing so because of the demonstrated harm to children. It doesn’t seem like the use of corporal punishment, albeit legal, is a big issue in Colorado. However the use of prone restraints not only harms children and people with developmental and mental disabilities, but it kills them.
Colorado residential facilities are allowed to use physical discipline on children and adults with developmental and mental disabilities. These facilities call it restraint. They claim restraint is necessary to protect staff and residents. There are times that it is necessary to restrain out of control people, but many, if not most restraints can be avoided with proper staff training. Even more can be avoided with facility policies that allow the out of control person to work out their issues in a secure location, where staff and other residents are at a safe distance. These positive behavioral supports and interventions not only work, but they save lives. The hitch, it costs more than to simply use physical restraint. Despite the cost, there is no excuse for facilities that are paid $80, $90, $100 a day or more choose restraints over a more humane, effective and safe behavioral intervention approach.
When a person is causing serious self-injury during an out of control incident, a safe and properly executed restraint may be indicated. If a person is out of control in the community, a safe and properly executed restraint may be necessary to protect the individual and the community. What is never indicated is a prone restrain where a person is restrained face down with their arms behind their back, or in any other position that places the individual at risk of positional asphyxia.
Over the years well-publicized deaths due to improper restraints have led Colorado lawmakers to restrict restraint practice. In 1993 Casey Collier, a teen with autism, died at the hands of his residential facility providers at the Cleo Wallace Center in Westminster, Colorado. Casey, a foster child, was killed by the system that was intended to protect him. In 1999, in part in response to Casey and others’ deaths, Colorado passed the “Protection of Persons from Restraint Act.” This Act delineates when and how restraints may be used in schools, and facilities serving children in foster care, as well as people with developmental and mental disabilities.
Despite the Act, children and people with disabilities still die from the use of restraints in facilities. Orlena Parker died at the Colorado Springs Devereux Cleo Wallace facility in 2003 after 6 or 7 adults pinned her down during an out of control incident. A Denver news station conducted an investigation into four deaths of epople with disabilities in state, or state funded, facilities. All four people died as a result of improper restraints, particularly prone restraints. In response to these deaths, a bill was introduced to amend the Protection of Persons from Restraint Act to prohibit many forms of dangerous prone restraint. Sadly this bill died in committee, after extensive lobbying efforts by facilities who prefer to use the deadly and less costly restraints.
It seems money and power trump what is best for children and people with disabilities.