ATLANTIC CITY - At first glance, they look like they could be soldiers or police officers, getting instruction on hand-to-hand combat. But the group of men and women gathered inside a banquet room at an Atlantic City casino are actually teachers and youth counselors, attending a five-day workshop on how to physically restrain students.
"You have to have a capacity to deal with an emergency when it's there," says Joseph Mullen, owner of JKM Training, the company conducting the training.
As attendees pair off to practice restraint techniques, a trainer walks through the room, giving instructions. "Stay squared perpendicular to him" he says to one teacher, working on a scenario in which he might be breaking up a fight. "Belly button on the hip, right? Head tight to the shoulder blade so he can't hit you in the head."
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Mullen says his training program has been reviewed by medical experts and is intended to make sure teachers can safely restrain students without injury. "We don't use pressure points or pain compliance to achieve control and we avoid the misuse of body weight," he says.
But opponents say this kind of training serves no purpose, especially since restraint is most often used on children in special education. "What are we teaching these adults to do?" asks education advocate Renay Zamloot. "We're teaching them to manhandle students in lieu of educating them."
Mullen insists proper restraint training can prevent tragic consequences. Surveillance video obtained by News 12 New Jersey shows two staff members restraining a child face down using a technique known as prone restraint, which has been linked to numerous suffocation deaths, including that of Jason Tallman, of Ocean County. Mullen agrees prone restraint is dangerous and says his company does not include it in training for teachers.
Educators also argue training can head off situations where restraint crosses into abuse. In one infamous video, Abbie Bowden, a then 10-year-old autistic girl, is restrained 14 times in one day at a school in Massachusetts, for things as minor as refusing to sit quietly in time out, refusing to fold her hands on the desk in front of her, and refusing to allow a teacher to help her up after restraining her on the floor.
"Certainly there are times where restraint gets misused," Mullen says, adding that his company focuses heavily on calming kids down so restraint is not necessary.
Still, some critics question whether the training is nearly as effective as the training companies claim. There are no national accreditations for training companies and no minimum credentials for trainers. And after five days of training, JKM's attendees go back to their schools, where they are expected to not only restrain students effectively, but also train their coworkers to do the same.
Is that enough? "I don't know that there's any point in time that you can actually say this is enough," Mullen says, "but we're comfortable with the five-day curriculum that we teach."