WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP - New Jersey has almost no rules governing the use of restraint on special education students. And a Kane In Your Corner investigation finds even some who defend its use believe the lack of regulation can result in abuse.
Billy Trainello, 11, is autistic and has trouble communicating. But a few months ago, he said something that made his mom, Michelle, take notice. "I would say 'what happened to you at school today?'" she says, "and he would tell me he got 'stuck' and he'd put his hands behind his back."
Michelle emailed Washington Township schools and demanded to know every time the staff had physically restrained her son and why. The reports she received indicated Billy had been restrained 23 times in less than two months, sometimes two or three times a day.
READ MORE: Education Stories
Michelle says she was devastated that "the people I trusted most with my son" had restrained him so often without her knowledge. New Jersey, however, has no law that says parents are entitled to know when their children are physically restrained at school.
In fact, New Jersey law does not address the use of restraint in school at all. Restraint is covered by the state's corporal punishment statute which allows "reasonable and necessary" force to be used "for the protection of persons or property." Critics say the statute is too vague and essentially allows individual districts to do as they please.
"These types of tactics…should only be used in emergency situations," says education advocate Renay Zamloot. "They should not be routine methods of behavioral management."
When Michelle Trainello demanded to know exactly what methods of restraint were used on her son, she hit another brick wall. Washington Township would not tell her whether school staff simply held Billy by the wrists, for example, or whether his legs were restrained as well. Officials would only say that in each case, staff used district-approved restraint techniques "in one minute intervals" without saying how many intervals Billy was subjected to.
This, too, is legal. Under New Jersey law, schools are not obligated to inform parents how their children were restrained, or how long the restraint lasted.
Washington Township schools would not discuss Billy's case, or the district's use of restraint in general. Superintendent Roger Jinks says, "We care deeply about every child that attends our school. All teachers and administrators work hard every day to help all children reach their potential."
Even some who defend the use of restraint do not endorse the way it appears to have been used on Billy Trainello. Joseph Mullen, who runs a company that provides restraint training to school personnel, says he preaches full transparency to districts and says those that do not inform parents when restraint is used are "their own worst enemies."
Robert Mooney, acting superintendent in East Hanover, defends his district's use of restraint. But asked if he would approve of a student being restrained, hands behind his back, and the parents not being notified, Mooney replied: "Absolutely not. I would be very unhappy with that and I would get to the bottom of it."
Mullen says despite occasional abuses, restraint is still necessary as a last resort. He says his message to parents is that, "If there's a circumstance where your child is harming themselves or some other child is harming them, you can be assured that we will physically prevent that from happening."
But Michelle Trainello says her son's case is proof New Jersey needs more regulation. "You have to have some rights," she says. "It just seems ridiculous that we have no say."
In April, Billy Trainello transferred to a new school. In his first two months, his mom says he has not needed to be restrained once.