EDISON - Special needs students across New Jersey are being physically restrained, held by the wrists and ankles or pinned down, unable to move. School officials say it's necessary to protect students and staff, but critics call the practice barbaric. Tonight, Kane In Your Corner launches a three-part investigation into what some call the dirty secret of special education.
Brandon Brisebois is a 17-year-old with Down syndrome. Last year, his parents began to wonder what was going on at the Hawkswood School in Eatontown. "My child was coming home with bruises on his arms, hand marks," says his mother, Sherri.
When she asked for an explanation, Sherri Brisebois says the school told her Brandon had needed to be physically restrained on several occasions. Brandon describes how staff members crossed his arms in front of him and bear-hugged him from behind, a technique known as a "basket hold." His parents also say three and four staff members would hold him down. Brandon's parents were furious because like many kids with Down syndrome, Brandon has enlarged vertebrae in his neck, leaving him at elevated risk of injury or paralysis.
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Officials at the Hawkswood School declined to be interviewed, but say their educators "follow state law and school policy."
Even after 20 years, Rick Tallman can't forget the day his autistic 10-year-old son, Jason, was restrained at KidsPeace, a residential facility in Pennsylvania. Jason died at the hospital of suffocation. His chest had been compressed while he was pinned face down. A staff member was charged in his death but found not guilty.
Chelsea Colognon, an extremely high-functioning autistic student, was restrained after she had a meltdown as she was about to perform on stage at East Hanover Middle School in March. The details depend on who you believe.
Chelsea says she ran into the girls locker room, hoping to be alone, but the principal and two parents, who were not school staff members, pursued her inside and restrained her. "The principal was behind me holding me by the wrists, while one parent was holding my two ankles," Chelsea recalls. "They were holding me like an animal."
In a written report, the principal insists only she restrained Chelsea after she says Chelsea kicked one of the parents. The report does not fully explain why the parents were allowed to enter and remain in the girls' locker room. Chelsea's mother, Rachel Labrador, backs her daughter's version, saying Chelsea's autism makes it "very hard for her to say something other than exactly what happened."
East Hanover Schools Superintendent Robert Mooney says he cannot talk specifically about Chelsea's case. But asked if any of his students have ever been restrained, not just by staff but also untrained parents, Mooney replied "Not to my knowledge."
Mooney defends the use of restraint as a last resort. "We couldn't, for example, decide not to have one of these gentle or safe holds on a child, and then have another child injured as a result of that," he says.
Kane In Your Corner asked dozens of school administrators all across the state to discuss the issue of school restraint. Mooney was the only one who agreed.
Education advocate Renay Zamloot says restraint has no place in the classroom. "Your child should not be fearful of coming to school and your child should not be physically or emotionally hurt at school," she says.