Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate

CT students restrained, secluded thousands of times causing dozens of injuries: ‘Something is not working’

Practices used repeatedly on some students; Black students disproportionately subjected
Photo of Alex Putterman

If not for the markings on her daughter's arms, Beth might have never known what happened.

One day last May, Beth was summoned to New Beginnings Family Academy in Bridgeport because Rose, a second-grader who has ADHD and is prone to outbursts, had spent the morning bolting from her classroom and climbing on furniture. 

Rose screamed, threw shoes and a phone and bit, hit and kicked staff, they later wrote, records show. Staff warned Rose she would be physically restrained if her unsafe behaviors continued. Unable to calm her, school officials threatened to call 911 if Beth didn’t come soon.

Beth arrived and ushered Rose to her car, where the young girl held out her arms, revealing visible markings. When Beth asked what had happened, Rose said several staffers at New Beginnings, a public charter school, had held down her arms and legs as she writhed and called out for her favorite teacher. The restraint had lasted several minutes and left her physically bruised and emotionally shaken.

“It was so hard,” Rose, now 7, said recently, describing the force used against her. (At her mother's request, Hearst Newspapers is using pseudonyms for the girl and her mother to protect the girl's identity.)

The next morning Beth returned to the school, where administrators acknowledged Rose had been physically restrained.

“I was furious,” Beth said. “You send your kids to school to make sure they get a proper education and make sure they’re safe, and because they have a disability or they’re not listening, they restrain them?”

Under a 2015 law, students in Connecticut schools may be restrained — meaning physically restricted or immobilized — or secluded — meaning confined in a room and prevented from leaving — in cases involving “immediate or imminent injury to the student or to others.” The federal education department tells schools that both restraint and seclusion should be “avoided to the greatest extent possible.”

Statistics from the state Department of Education show that Connecticut schools use restraint and seclusion tens of thousands of times annually, often against students, like Rose, with disabilities or behavioral disorders. 

During the 2019-20 school year, the most recent for which data is available, Connecticut schools recorded 41,887 instances of restraint or seclusion involving 3,481 special education students, amounting to more than 200 per day on average. Meanwhile, over the nine-year period from 2011-12 to 2019-20, restraint and seclusion incidents in the state resulted in more than 3,200 reported student injuries, including at least 75 that required medical attention beyond first aid.

Though the state has not had a restraint or seclusion fatality in recent years, deaths have occurred on rare occasions nationwide.

Due to gaps in data collection, child welfare advocates say, these figures likely underrepresent the true prevalence of these practices, which are performed by a variety of school employees, including teachers, aides, administrators and other staff.

While many school officials consider restraint and seclusion necessary in cases of emergency, advocates say they put students and staff members at risk, traumatize those involved and often escalate tense situations instead of resolving them. As they see it, the very need for restraint and seclusion signals that something has gone deeply wrong in a student’s education.

“Every single instance we have to look at as a failure,” said Kathryn Meyer, an attorney with the Hartford-based Center for Children’s Advocacy. “Not as a personal failure, necessarily, but as a system failure. A program is not operating as it should.”

In Connecticut, state data shows restraint and seclusion are used disproportionately against Black students, who accounted for 22 percent of recorded incidents among special education students during the 2019-20 school year, despite representing only 13 percent of the state’s total student body and about 16 percent of students with disabilities that year.

Boys are typically about four times as likely to be restrained or secluded as girls, state numbers show, and elementary school students are more likely to be restrained or secluded than older children.

Federal data indicates that more than 80 percent of students subjected to restraint and seclusion have disabilities. In Connecticut, many incidents occur in designated special education programs, but nearly a third occur in traditional public schools, state numbers show.

For some students, restraint and seclusion are not occasional occurrences but a regular part of the school experience. According to the state data, 887 Connecticut students were restrained or secluded more than 10 times during the 2019-20 school year, while 49 were restrained or secluded more than 100 times — a total that comes out to nearly three times per week.

While most incidents last only a few minutes, according to state numbers, in rare cases students have been restrained or secluded for more than an hour at a time.

Bryan Klimkiewicz, special education division director at the state Department of Education, said officials there do not know whether Connecticut schools have restrained or secluded students excessively. He said the department would have to evaluate cases “on an individualized basis,” which the department has not done.

Historically, educators have viewed restraint and seclusion as inevitable, particularly in special education classrooms. But recently, as districts nationwide have reduced or eliminated the use of these tactics through alternative models, advocates increasingly see another way.

With the proper resources and the proper mindset, they say, incidents like the one Rose experienced can be avoided.

“Giving staff and programs and children the tools and support that they need, that’s the answer,” said Sarah Eagan, Connecticut’s child advocate. “And that’s where we still have a lot of work to do.”

‘A major red flag’

Over time, Connecticut has gradually pared back the circumstances under which restraint and seclusion may be legally used, first in medical facilities — following a blockbuster 1998 Hartford Courant series on abuses in those settings — and eventually in schools. Most recently, in 2015, the state legislature passed a law limiting the circumstances under which restraint and seclusion are permitted and tightening protocols for data collection.

Still, restraint and seclusion incidents pile up by the thousands statewide, leaving advocates to wonder how seriously state and local officials truly take the issue.

“I think to some degree the work has stalled,” Eagan said. “There was progress, and then it stalled.”

An animated graphic showing an example of how a restraint is performed. The maneuver begins by bringing the student to the ground lying on their back. Often, multiple staff members are involved. Once the student is lying down, their arms and legs are held down. A prone restraint is performed in a similar way, except instead of holding the student with their back on the ground, the student would be held face down.

While schools say they only restrain or seclude students in emergency situations, attorneys who represent families in cases of alleged abuse of restraint and seclusion say the practices are often used in cases when there is no actual imminent risk. Of the tens of thousands of restraint and seclusion instances reported each year, they say, many could, and should, be met with less extreme responses.

“There is a point at which (restraint and seclusion) is absolutely necessary because there is an emergency and someone's going to get hurt,” said Christina Ghio, a special education attorney based in Cheshire. “But, I think that those instances are probably much lower than we think they are.”

Since 2015, state education department investigators have found at least 20 instances in which school staff violated state law around the use of restraint and seclusion, according to complaint records obtained through a Freedom of Information request.

In spring 2016, for example, the Office of the Child Advocate submitted a complaint on behalf of a fifth-grade student in New London who had allegedly been restrained 91 times in just over a year. Though a state investigator determined that some of those restraints were justified, she found that others — such as when the student was restrained and then secluded in response to merely leaving his classroom — were not.

In another case not long after, the state found that staff members at a Bristol elementary school had secluded a first-grade student for 27 minutes in response to him playing with an unfolded paper clip.

In yet another case, in 2018, a student at a summer program run by Granby Public Schools was determined to have been restrained “on and off” for 50 minutes by a staff member who was not trained to conduct physical interventions.

Opponents of restraint and seclusion describe the tactics as traumatizing for the students involved, many of whom have behavioral issues stemming from developmental disabilities. After enough times being restrained or secluded, Meyer says, “school becomes a dangerous, scary place.”

Restraint and seclusion also come with significant injury risk, both for students and for staff members. In late 2018, the mother of a non-verbal, autistic teenager sued the town of Fairfield, the Fairfield Board of Education, a local bus company and two bus employees alleging that the employees had repeatedly used excessive force against her son during his ride to school, leading to “bruising and lacerations, shock, emotional distress, anger, confusion, sadness, feeling unsafe, paranoia, nightmares, increased anxiety” and more.

“This is a very upsetting and frustrating case because it was so preventable,” the mother’s attorney, Cindy Robinson, said at the time. “Parents have to be able to put their children on the school bus with the utmost confidence that they will be safe — especially in a case such as ours where our young client is non-verbal.”

The town of Fairfield, the Fairfield Board of Education and the bus company have denied the allegations in the complaint. The bus company declined to comment citing pending litigation but in a previous statement the company said it had "terminated" the employee involved "based on information obtained from both an internal and external investigation" and had policies in place to ensure safety.

The suit is still pending, and could be headed for trial next year, but one of the bus employees has already pleaded guilty to risk of injury to a child, third-degree assault and first-degree unlawful restraint. At his sentencing, where he received a five-year suspended prison term and three years of probation, the employee tearfully blamed the bus company for failing to adequately train him in dealing with disabled students, according to prior reporting.

The Fairfield Board of Education offices.

The Fairfield Board of Education offices.

/ Josh LaBella / Hearst Connecticut Media

Aside from the risk of injury or trauma, advocates question what restraint and seclusion actually accomplish, at least outside of extreme circumstances in which a student is attempting to run into traffic or physically attack someone. One 2018 study found that replacing restraint and seclusion with less restrictive methods not only reduced injuries to staff members and students but also increased the ability of subjects to meet their goals.

Eagan argues that restraint and seclusion are more than just unhelpful — that they might even be counterproductive, escalating tense situations and further inflaming behavioral issues.

“It worsens the behaviors it’s meant to address,” Eagan said. “In part because it’s traumatizing, in part because it’s ineffective, in part because it does nothing to address the underlying skill and support needs that the child has and in part because it can destroy the trusting relationship between the child and the caregiver.”

Sarah Eagan, the state’s child advocate.

Sarah Eagan, the state’s child advocate.

Meyer agrees. “If (restraint and seclusion) is deterring behavior, it’s doing so in a really punitive and traumatic way,” she said. “It’s not teaching anybody anything, it’s not getting to the root of why they’re doing what they’re doing, so in and of itself it’s not accomplishing anything besides this alleged safety value.”

As Meyer sees it, if a school staff member feels the need to physically restrain or isolate a student, a lot has already gone awry in that student’s educational experience. This is particularly true, she says, in instances in which the same students are restrained and secluded repeatedly over weeks or months.

“If this is happening then this is a major red flag that something is not working,” Meyer said. “If it happened one time and then we had a (planning and placement team meeting) and changed stuff up, that would be the responsible way to go about it. The problem is that the kids who are restrained and secluded, they tend to be the ‘frequent flyers.’”

According to state statistics, about a third of students with disabilities who are physically restrained in a typical school year are restrained only once, while another third are restrained between two and five times. That leaves a final third who are restrained more than five times in a year, including some who are restrained dozens of times.

When one student requires such a drastic intervention so many times, Meyer wonders, “at what point are we saying this is not successful?”

In Connecticut, as elsewhere, restraint and seclusion are not spread evenly. Students who are restrained and secluded tend to have disabilities. They overwhelmingly tend to be male. And more often than not they tend to be Black or Latino.

Federal investigations in recent years have found some public school districts used restraint and seclusion in violation of students’ civil rights, including through systematic discrimination.

Deborah Dorfman, executive director of Disability Rights Connecticut, has worked all over the country over her 30-year career as an advocate for people with disabilities and has seen certain patterns emerge everywhere she has gone. School staff members perceive students of color, particularly Black boys, as uniquely aggressive, leading to more frequent restraint and seclusion.

“Unfortunately, I’ve just seen so much in the way of discrimination, particularly when there’s this intersection of disability and race,” Dorfman said.

A seclusion room in a Connecticut school.

A seclusion room in a Connecticut school.

Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate
A seclusion room in a Connecticut school.

A seclusion room in a Connecticut school.

Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate
A seclusion room in a Connecticut school. | Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate

‘An obligation to keep everyone safe’

School district officials say they don’t like using restraint and seclusion but view it as necessary when student behavior escalates.

“I don’t think you’ll find anyone who is encouraging more of it,” said Christopher Drezek, superintendent of the Enfield school district, which reported 601 restraint and seclusion incidents during the pandemic-disrupted 2019-20 school year. “But at the same time, we also have an obligation to keep everyone safe, and most importantly the child.”

Kate Dias, president of the Connecticut Education Association, a group representing teachers in the state, similarly described restraint and seclusion as unfortunate but sometimes necessary.

“We want the least restrictive environment for our children with absolute certainty,” Dias said. “But we also know that we have some really dysregulated students out there that have high needs.”

Connecticut Education Association (CEA) President Kate Dias speaks during a news conference in January.

Connecticut Education Association (CEA) President Kate Dias speaks during a news conference in January.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

Reports of restraint and seclusion vary widely across the state. The Meriden school district, which enrolls about 8,000 students, reported 786 restraint and seclusion incidents during the 2019-20 school year, according to state figures, while the Bridgeport district, which enrolls more than 20,000 students, reported only 57. More than two dozen districts, meanwhile, reported none at all. 

In extreme cases, some small districts have gone years without reporting any uses of restraint or seclusion. The regional school district serving nearly 1,000 students from Barkhamsted, Colebrook, New Hartford and Norfolk, for example, has not reported a single incident in the last nine years for which state data is available — a fact superintendent Judy Palmer attributed in an email to “highly effective programs and highly qualified professionals who work very well with students.”

Advocates, however, warn against taking restraint and seclusion data at face value. In some cases, they say, low counts can simply mean a district failed to record whatever incidents occurred. On at least six occasions since 2015, the state Department of Education has cited school districts for restraining or secluding a student without properly reporting the incident, records show. 

In Rose’s case, Beth isn’t sure New Beginnings would have documented the restraint if she hadn’t shown up the next day to complain. 

In an email, New Beginnings CEO Ronelle Swagerty declined to comment on Rose’s case, citing privacy laws barring her from disclosing information about specific students. 

Swagerty says the school doesn’t often use restraint and seclusion because its “emotionally responsive approach builds in protective factors that keep students feeling safe and comfortable.” She said only staff with proper training are permitted to use the practices and administrators have always complied with state law requiring parents be notified of such incidents within 24 hours.

“Some programs will look like they have very high numbers, but that's because they very diligently report every single hands-on (incident),” Eagan said. “Whereas, I think there are other programs and they report less because they don't as diligently report.”

In Windham, a relatively small town that nonetheless reported 346 instances of restraint or seclusion in 2019-20, director of pupil services Suzanne Krach said staff is trained to record all incidents, including when an adult blocks a child’s exit from a room.

“We probably are a little bit more on the cautious side,” Krach said. “If we have a kid who is escalated and tries to push past an adult, we say that’s a seclusion just to be sure we’re meeting the intent of the law.”

Several districts that have reported high levels of restraint and seclusion told Hearst Connecticut Media that their numbers are inflated because they offer more services to students with severe disabilities and are therefore able to keep more of those students in public schools. Some districts even accept special education students from neighboring towns, which may lead to more restraint and seclusion.

Meriden assistant superintendent Patricia Sullivan-Kowalski, for example, said the district likely reports such high levels of restraint and seclusion because the district prioritizes educating students in their neighborhood schools, instead of sending them outside the district.

Schools that specialize in special education account for a disproportionate number of restraints and seclusions. The Learning Center of Cromwell, a Christian middle and high school that serves about 95 students with high behavioral and developmental needs, is a particularly extreme example, having reported 3,364 restraints and seclusions in 2019-20, more than the state’s 13 largest public school districts put together.

Officials from Adelbrook, the agency that runs The Learning Center of Cromwell, said those incidents include relatively minor interventions — such as holding down a student’s hands to prevent him from hitting himself or gently escorting a student from one room to another — as well as more serious ones. In 2019-20, they said, more than half of those 3,364 incidents involved “three or four” particularly challenging students. 

The nature of the student population at Adelbrook is reflected in the restraint and seclusion numbers, according to Alyssa Goduti, Adelbrook’s president and CEO.

“For some of our kids, they have many, many times throughout the day, self-injurious behavior that would cause harm to them or harm to somebody else with their aggressive behavior if we do not go hands-on,” Goduti said.

Area Cooperative Educational Services, which offers specialized programs and services to 25 Connecticut districts mostly in southern Connecticut and enrolls 1,826 students, reported 1,793 restraint and seclusion incidents across its schools in 2019-20.

The Capital Region Education Council, which serves a similar role in the Hartford area but has a much larger student enrollment of 8,751, reported 2,882.

CREC representatives did not respond to requests for comment. Thomas Denehy, executive director of ACES, said in an email that the district provides staff members with extensive safety training and has both “formal and informal” systems in place to review incidents in hopes of reducing restraint and seclusion. Still, he said, physical interventions sometimes become necessary.

“The significant behavioral needs of our students sometimes require the use of safety management measures, such as restraint, seclusion or forcible escorts,” Denehy said. “Such measures are used only in situations requiring intervention to prevent immediate or imminent risk of harm to the student or others and to maintain safety.”

Drezek, the Enfield superintendent, fears that the use of interventions like restraint and seclusion will only increase in the coming years. The disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to a youth mental health crisis nationwide, and it’s already showing up in student behavior, he said.

“The social and emotional needs of our kids have been (at levels) we’ve never seen, and I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon,” Drezek said. “(The pandemic) was hard on us, and we’re adults. Can you imagine what it was like for a fifth-grader who got sent home in March of 2020 and you expect him to come back and sit in a chair for seven hours a day?”

A better way forward

Though most school districts continue to treat restraint and seclusion as unavoidable, a growing body of evidence suggests another way is possible.

Increasingly, districts nationwide have found success in limiting or even eliminating restraint and seclusion through an emphasis on “comfort over control,” meaning staff members are trained to calm distressed students before attempting to proceed with instruction. One model, called Ukeru, has been shown to nearly eliminate the use of physical restraint in schools and other settings.

These sorts of approaches have already proven to work in Connecticut. According to a 2016 UConn Health study, implementing this sort of system at a local alternative school serving students K-12 reduced restraints by 25 percent and the amount of time students spent in restraint by 46 percent. Seclusions decreased 59 percent, while the amount of time spent in seclusion decreased by 58 percent.

Advocates say the best way to reduce restraint and seclusion is to prevent students from getting to the point where they might require it.

“I think that there needs to be much, much, much more work on interventions before the child escalates to the point of needing a restraint or seclusion,” Ghio said.

If all else fails, and a student requires restraint or seclusion, Dorfman said, schools should take concrete steps to ensure it won’t happen again.

“If a child winds up being secluded or restrained, there should be a debriefing to figure out why this happened and it should be viewed as a failure that needs to be remediated,” she said. “That shouldn’t be the thing that gets relied on.”

While advocates say school districts can and should reduce restraint and seclusion by adopting new procedures, some also wish the state would take a more active role. Currently, the state Department of Education is responsible for tracking the use of restraint and seclusion but has little ability to hold schools accountable for overusing the practices.

“There are requirements to send your data to the state Department of Education, but then what happens?” Ghio said. “Where's the oversight? Where's the, ‘Gee, we've identified a program that has a really high number of restraints and seclusion, what are we going to do about that?’ ”

Klimkiewicz, from the state Department of Education, said the agency’s role is to ensure districts understand the law surrounding restraint and seclusion and to collect data on their use.

For Rose, the bruises healed within a few weeks, but the fallout from her restraint continues nearly six months later. She left New Beginnings Family Academy immediately after the incident and now attends a school that specializes in students with “educational and social challenges.”

Today, Rose still thinks about the restraint frequently. When the memories creep into her head, she says, she’ll ask her mom to use her cellphone “so I can just forget about it.”

Listening to her daughter recall the restraint and its aftermath, Beth can’t help but get emotional. For now, she says, her focus is on keeping Rose safe and helping her move past one of the worst traumas of her young life.

“It was just a horrible experience she had to go through,” Beth said. “She’s 7 years old, why does she even have to be talking about this stuff?”

When Schools Use Force

A yearlong investigation by Hearst Newspapers examines the controversial use of restraint and seclusion in schools nationwide.

Note: This story has been updated after Adelbrook provided additional information clarifying its comments.

Mary Katherine Wildeman and Currie Engel contributed to this report.

If you have tips, documents, or other information that you would like to share with a reporter, please contact Alex Putterman at on Twitter @AlexPutterman; or Matt Rocheleau at 508-265-2050, or on Twitter: @mrochele

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About this series

A yearlong national investigation by Hearst Newspapers provides the most comprehensive look to-date at how often restraint and seclusion are used in America’s schools – and how often children are harmed or die as a result. This series uncovers and highlights systemic abuses and problems, from discriminatory practices to major gaps in oversight. Journalists scrutinized years of patchy federal data on restraint and seclusion, conducted an unprecedented effort to gather records from all 50 state education agencies and obtained tens of thousands of pages of school district documents. Reporters scoured news articles, court records, government reports and other sources, studied laws in all 50 states, spoke to researchers and policy makers and interviewed more than 70 parents, students, teachers and school administrators.