Teachers and police restrained thousands of students in 22 New York districts

School records show dangerous methods sometimes used, restraints can last more than an hour

A special education classroom at Jackson Heights Elementary School in Glens Falls.

A special education classroom at Jackson Heights Elementary School in Glens Falls.

Paul Buckowski/Albany Times Union

Jonathan Moore struggled to breathe when four teachers pinned him to the floor in a Ballston Spa elementary school. The fifth grader, who is autistic and nonverbal, was unable to call out to the staff members as they pressed his body down.

Held on his back for six minutes, Jonathan was without his iPad, which he uses to communicate.

“Felt long, (I could) not breathe good,” Jonathan, using his iPad, recalled to the Times Union.

The episode was one of three times staff members physically restrained Jonathan in the spring of 2019, according to school records and the Moore family. The records described Jonathan as sometimes growing agitated in school and attempting to hit staff members. His parents believe teachers’ efforts to restrain him were unwarranted.

Jonathan said he also saw teachers restrain other children multiple times in his special education classroom.

The experiences left Jonathan with post-traumatic stress disorder and later prompted him to stop attending public school altogether, the family said.

Jonathan Moore, 12, who is autistic and non-verbal, types on his tablet which he uses to communicate.

Jonathan Moore, 12, who is autistic and non-verbal, types on his tablet which he uses to communicate.

Will Waldron/Times Union

Jonathan is far from alone.

Across New York, thousands of students, most often children with disabilities, have been physically restrained by staff members in K-12 schools in recent years. The practices can cause trauma, injuries and, in rare cases, death.

The interventions — performed by a variety of school employees, including teachers, aides, administrators and other staff members — are meant to be used in emergency situations to keep students from hurting themselves or others.

But a year-long Times Union investigation found that in some New York school districts, students were physically restrained hundreds of times per year.

Educators restrained some students multiple times a day or week, in holds lasting up to two and a half hours, school records indicate. In some cases, students were restrained in non-emergency situations.

Children as young as 3 years old were held in prone — or face-down — restraints, the records showed. Federal education officials say prone restraints “should never be used” because they can restrict a child’s breathing.

Nearly all incidents involved elementary school students.

Parents said sometimes they didn’t learn their child had been restrained until, in some cases, weeks or months later.

Many of the Times Union’s findings are based on a review of more than 10,000 pages of records about restraint incidents from the past six years that the newspaper obtained from 22 school districts, including in New York City, Albany and Syracuse, and six of New York’s regional districts, known as Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, that serve special education students with more significant needs.

The records provide an unprecedented look into how the schools used restraints.

Public school districts are required to document restraint incidents involving students with disabilities, per state regulations, but not incidents involving students without disabilities, according to New York state Education Department spokeswoman Jeanne Beattie. 

Unlike 38 other states, New York’s state Education Department does not make public schools report restraint incidents as part of a regular data collection. The department does a limited annual survey on restraints in some private or state-run day and residential schools serving students with disabilities.

At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education’s effort to quantify the use of restraint in schools nationwide suffers from significant underreporting and lacks critical details; the latest figures are from the 2017-18 school year.

The school records collected by the Times Union indicate that some New York districts recorded more restraint incidents in their internal records than they reported to the U.S. Department of Education. The Department of Education figures are based on responses to specific questions and the department's definitions of restraint and seclusion; the Times Union compared these figures to reporters' analysis of records provided in response to a public records request.

A more permissive law

No federal law governs the use of these practices on children. State laws vary across the country.

Like many other states, New York permits school staff members to use “reasonable physical force” on students, including various physical restraints intended to immobilize children in emergency situations in which a student or staff member is at risk of physical injury.

New York regulations also say restraints should be performed only if other methods cannot be used, and never as punishment or as a way to change student behavior.

But New York is one of about a dozen states that also allows teachers to restrain students for reasons beyond protecting others’ physical safety.

State regulations say that in emergency situations, teachers can restrain students “to protect the property of the school, school district or others.” The techniques also can be used to deal with a non-compliant student “whose behavior is interfering with the orderly exercise and performance of school or school district functions, powers and duties.”

One mother told the Times Union her son was restrained at school for throwing his shoes at a cup of water in 2021. 

Physical restraints, which include various methods to immobilize a child who is seated, standing or on the ground, are most common in New York and across the country. Thirty-seven states ban the use of prone restraints, or any type of restraints that restrict breathing. New York regulations do not.

More than half of all states also ban the use of chemical restraints – medication intended to subdue a child – or mechanical restraints, like handcuffs or straps by educators. New York’s law lists mechanical restraints as a prohibited “aversive intervention” when they’re “used as a punishment,” but state law does not explicitly address chemical restraints.

“Promoting healthy and safe learning environments where students can receive the instruction and other supports they need to learn and achieve at high levels is one of the primary responsibilities of each school in New York and is a priority of the state Education Department,” said department spokesman J.P. O’Hare. O’Hare said the department advises schools to use “positive behavioral interventions and supports,” which can help make schools “less reactive” and “maximize academic engagement and achievement.”

In response to a public records request, the New York City Department of Education, the country’s largest school district, said it had no records on restraint incidents because teachers are not permitted by department policy to perform them; instead, school resource officers employed by the New York City Police Department are called upon to restrain students when needed. However, a few attorneys and one teacher in the district said they knew of occasions in which teachers used physical restraints.

Later, Jenna Lyle, spokeswoman for the city education department, said the district began keeping records on restraint cases in the department’s incident reporting system “during the winter of the 2020-21 school year," but declined to share the data.

NYPD data shows 56 percent of restraint incidents in New York City public schools involved the arrest of a child.

In the district with more than 1 million students, NYPD data shows officers restrained students using metal or Velcro handcuffs 7,639 times from 2016 through 2021. NYPD officers performed physical restraints on students in 67 other instances in five years, the data shows.

“NYC Public Schools’ absolute top priority is ensuring the safety and well-being of all of our students,” Lyle said. “Every school is staffed by NYPD school safety agents, who work closely with our school leaders to ensure the safety of everyone in our buildings. This is in addition to the range of safety measures put in place by this administration.”

Buffalo Public Schools, the second-largest school district in the state, said it had no records of its restraint incidents, blaming a computer ransomware attack last year. 

Other districts struggled to say how many restraint incidents per year they had and handed over hundreds — and in some instances thousands — of pages of incident reports teachers completed by hand. 

The records showed some districts used restraints only a handful of times in five years. Others had hundreds of physical restraint incidents per year.

Several districts said they use restraints as a last resort to respond to emergencies involving the most challenging and aggressive student behaviors. 

“Our teachers and staff love these kids,” said Anita Murphy, superintendent of the Capital Region BOCES. “Nobody ever wants to have to restrain a child.”

“If they are in danger or are endangering others, there may be a restraint, but we try everything first to de-escalate the situation and to work with the child in the way that the child needs,” Murphy added.

School staff members are trained through various programs on de-escalation and restraint techniques.

Julie Keegan, a director at Disability Rights New York, said the quality of training varies from school to school. She noted that while staff members may be trained on how to restrain, they may not receive enough training on how to teach certain children with disabilities or respond to their behaviors to prevent conflict.

“We are hearing schools more and more talk about challenges of students with behavior challenges and the costs associated with preventing behaviors that could result in the use of restraints,” Keegan said. “Schools don’t have time or staff to implement effective interventions. That is where the big problem is.”

Multiple schools said they are already implementing changes that they believe will help reduce the use of restraints. 

What records show

In many cases, school records indicated educators performed physical restraints in serious situations when students were punching or kicking others, engaging in self-harm or attempting to jump out of windows.

But other examples reveal physical restraints are sometimes used in nonemergencies.

In 2016, a child at Sullivan BOCES in Liberty was restrained for seven minutes after she ignored a teacher’s instruction to finish her work and crawled under the teacher’s desk, according to a school report.

An excerpt from a report documenting an incident in October 2016 in which a student was held by educators in a restraint for 7 minutes at Sullivan BOCES, after the child crawled under the teacher's desk.  

An excerpt from a report documenting an incident in October 2016 in which a student was held by educators in a restraint for 7 minutes at Sullivan BOCES, after the child crawled under the teacher's desk.  

Sullivan BOCES

In 2017, a kindergartner at True North Troy Preparatory Charter School (now merged with Kipp Schools) was restrained in the dean's office in an episode lasting 2.5 hours after running through the halls and refusing to stop “shrieking,” according to school records. The girl was later suspended.

In 2019, an Albany City School District teaching assistant “improperly dragged a student who was lying on the cafeteria floor,” according to a copy of a settlement agreement between the employee and the school district. 

The teaching assistant had her pay docked and agreed to transfer positions. She no longer works in the district, spokesman Ron Lesko said.

An Albany City Schools teacher settled allegations in 2020 that she had ‘improperly dragged a student.’

An Albany City Schools teacher settled allegations in 2020 that she had ‘improperly dragged a student.’

Albany City School District

Disability Rights New York examined the North Colonie Central School District and alleged that in the 2013-14 school year, the district used restraints in a nonemergency situation and in place of systemic behavioral interventions, in violation of state law. The organization noted the district made substantial efforts to remedy the problems after being confronted with the findings.

A review of corporal punishment cases by the Times Union also found at least 16 cases in which investigators substantiated that educators had inappropriately restrained children in various school districts between 2016 and 2021, including a case in which a teacher used her knee to hold the child on the ground and an incident in which a student with disabilities was tied to a chair with a scarf.

School records showed students and staff members were sometimes injured during incidents involving restraints. For six school districts with records that included information on student or staff injuries, people were hurt in about 3 percent of restraint cases.

School records from multiple districts described bruises, abrasions, bite marks, scratches and bloody noses produced during restraint incidents. In three cases at Ballston Spa Central School District, an ambulance was called for a child after a restraint incident.

In one case, a Schenectady City School District staff member involved in restraining a 9-year-old needed X-rays for injured ribs after the incident, records show.

The Times Union also found:

Prone restraints, which are banned in some states, are used.

  • At Sullivan BOCES in the southern Catskills, students were held in prone restraints 109 times between January 2016 and July 2021, including an incident involving a 3-year-old. Monroe 2-Orleans BOCES, Rockland BOCES and North Colonie Schools also used prone restraints.

Some students are restrained for long periods.

  • Six districts documented incidents in which a student was restrained for at least an hour and sometimes more than two.

Some students are repeatedly restrained.

  • Most districts redacted records in ways that prevented determining if a student was restrained multiple times. But records at True North Troy Preparatory Charter School gave a glimpse. They show one kindergarten student was restrained 28 times in six months of 2016 and a first-grader was restrained 10 times in four months.

Some districts documented more restraint incidents in their school records than they reported to the U.S. Department of Education during a mandatory data collection in 2017-18.

For example, Ballston Spa Central School District reported 16 incidents to the U.S. Department of Education in 2017-18, but internal school records show 88. The district’s Interim Superintendent Gianleo Duca said the district had no explanation for the discrepancy and does its best to comply with mandated reporting requirements with “absolute fidelity.” 

Cohoes City School District, which had 74 incidents in school records and reported 66 to the federal Education Department, said they also couldn’t explain the discrepancy in their reporting but had since updated their recordkeeping on restraints to “reduce the chance for human error.”

‘We can do better’

Jonathan Moore, 13, is a Yankees fan who likes swimming, going to the mall and playing his ukulele. When asked about the times he was restrained, the corners of his eyes crinkle like he might cry.

Jonathan’s parents, Tara and Rick Moore of Malta, said they felt Ballston Spa Central School District used restraints on their son when it wasn’t necessary and after failing to meet his educational needs.

According to the family’s account, Jonathan, who does not speak, grew frustrated in school in fifth grade because staff members placed restrictions on how he could communicate with his iPad. He said he felt his class wasn’t challenging enough academically. 

Sometimes his frustration manifested as making loud noises, banging desks or hitting people. On three of these occasions, teachers restrained Jonathan.

“I wasn’t being good, but [I] don’t think the hold [was the] best choice,” Jonathan told the Times Union. “[I] didn’t like it there. I was always sad.”

After the restraints, Jonathan said he was too scared to tell his parents what happened. The school told his parents about two of the incidents. They didn’t learn of the third until Jonathan felt safe enough to confide in his speech therapist while he was learning at home during the pandemic, they said.

“In the case of Jonathan, [restraints] should never be used,” Tara Moore said. “I always feel there is a positive replacement behavior that you could put in place to support him.”

“Any time you do one of these restraints there is a risk of injury or worse,” she added.

Rick and Tara Moore watch their son Jonathan play the ukulele at their home in Malta.

Rick and Tara Moore watch their son Jonathan play the ukulele at their home in Malta.

Will Waldron/Times Union

School records suggest educators tried some steps to de-escalate prior to restraining Jonathan. Ballston Spa Central School District declined to discuss his case, citing confidentiality laws.

“However, any allegations that a school district employee acted improperly or did not adhere to the applicable laws, regulations, and policies, are addressed expediently and in a manner that ensures, even if there is no wrongdoing, that students are supported throughout their time in the school district,” Duca said via email. “Based upon our review of available records generated at the time of any therapeutic holds that have been utilized, the school district believes that it has always acted in a lawful manner, and has processed any concerns that were raised in accordance with the law as well.”

A parent from a different district said she understands that there are limited occasions when restraints are needed to keep her son safe. 

Right before he experiences a seizure, her son sometimes loses his ability to speak normally and tries to throw items and get attention, said the parent, who asked the Times Union not to identify her family or their district to protect her family’s privacy. The pressure of a physical restraint can help calm him as the seizure passes.

But the mother, who is also a teacher, said she felt many people “lack compassion” for how traumatizing the restraints — and the crises that lead up to them — are for her son. Her son has been placed in closet-like time out rooms during the incidents and has been suspended after being restrained on multiple occasions.

“This is medical. This isn’t behavioral,” she said. “We can do better.”

Students most affected

In 2017-18, a few New York schools for students with disabilities reported some of the highest counts of students subjected to physical restraint in the nation.

At Rockland BOCES, 119 students were physically restrained in 2017-18, which was the third-highest number of students subjected to physical restraint of any district in the country that year, federal data shows.  

School records showed that students restrained at Rockland BOCES in the past five years were overwhelmingly male. Educators restrained more Black students than white students, Hispanic students or students of other backgrounds.

“Rockland BOCES serves students with multiple complex special needs from across the region, many of whom display self-injurious behavior, as well as aggressive behavior toward those around them,” said Rockland BOCES spokesman Scott Salotto. “Any physical intervention by our highly trained staff is intended to keep the child, other students and employees safe. In all such instances, the parent is notified.”

Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES reported the fifth-highest number of students subjected to physical restraint of any school district in the nation in 2017-18, according to federal data. The district reported that 103 students were physically restrained that year.

But Erin Fairben, the BOCES’s assistant superintendent for instructional programs, said the number the district reported was erroneous due to a transition in recordkeeping systems that year. She said the correct number of restrained students was 54.

Fairben said the district is proud of its work to reduce the use of restraints and respond to students with individualized crisis strategies. She noted that educators from as far away as Australia have come to the BOCES to learn from their methods.

Restrained students are most often children with disabilities and disproportionately students of color.

Federal data shows that in New York, 27 percent of students physically restrained in 2017-18 were Black, while Black students accounted for 17 percent of school enrollment. More starkly, 85 percent of physically restrained students had disabilities, although students with disabilities were just 17 percent of public school enrollment.

Federal data also shows districts in New York have been reporting increasing numbers of students subject to physical restraint since the 2013-14 school year. In the 2017-18 school year, the last year for which data is available, at least 2,615 students were physically restrained in New York or about 1 out of every 1,000 public school students.

“It’s a survival mode on the part of the staff and it’s getting worse over the years,” said Danielle Brooks, who’s worked as a special education advocate in New York for 25 years. “I thought over the length of my career it would get better.”

Brooks said she regularly works with clients whose children are unnecessarily restrained in school and come home with bruises. Schools are often understaffed and use underpaid and under-trained teaching assistants to care for special education students with complex educational needs and behavioral responses, Brooks said.

North Colonie Central School District Superintendent Joseph Corr said restraints are one “tool” on a continuum of interventions that allow the district to educate special education students within the district.

“Our commitment to our students and our families is to keep everyone safe, to keep individual children safe who may be having issues at a particular moment, and to keep the entire classroom safe,” he said.

North Colonie Schools Superintendent Joseph Corr is interviewed at school offices in Latham in August.

North Colonie Schools Superintendent Joseph Corr is interviewed at school offices in Latham in August.

Lori Van Buren/Times Union

Only a small number of New York school districts, including the Albany City School District, Katonah-Lewisboro Union Free School District, Schenectady City School District and Syracuse City School District, reported restraining any students without disabilities to the U.S. Department of Education.

True North Troy Preparatory Charter School was a rare district that reported restraining more students without disabilities than students with disabilities — more than twice as many, in fact — in 2017-18.

True North merged with Kipp Capital Region Public Charter Schools in July 2022. A spokeswoman for Kipp said, “It is impossible for anyone from KIPP Capital Region to comment on the practices, policies or student information prior to” the merger. She declined to make school leaders from True North available.

Parents not notified

Many parents told the Times Union that it was, at times, difficult to find out what had happened to their own child in school.

One mother said that in April 2021, she was notified that her young autistic and nonverbal son was restrained in his public school classroom in the Katonah-Lewisboro School District.

She thought it was the first time.

A few days later, she learned from the assistant principal that the episode was actually the 33rd time her son had been restrained in just the past two months. 

The mother, who declined to be named to protect her family’s privacy, provided documentation to the Times Union of each incident of restraint her child experienced in the district. 

Some days he was restrained more than once in a day. At times, the holds were as long as 20 minutes.

“I never even imagined such a thing could happen in an educational setting,” the mother said. “That’s how naive I was.”

The school district informed her that her child’s behavior created emergencies that necessitated restraints. 

The mother said that either these incidents were not emergencies and the district was using restraints routinely, or there were over 30 emergencies in her son’s classroom that parents were not informed about. She said neither answer was comforting or made her trust the school.

Katonah-Lewisboro Superintendent Andrew Selesnick said school policy is to notify parents as soon as possible and no later than the end of the day about a restraint incident. He declined to comment on individual student cases.

“A protective hold is absolutely a last resort to be used only when harm is imminent to a person,” Selesnick said. “I think we can be proud that that’s the practice we follow. Our staff are well trained in the district (and) trained regularly.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul signed into law this year a bill this year requiring same-day notification to parents when their child is placed in a physical or mechanical restraint or confined in a time out room. A time out room is an unlocked room where a student may be confined alone for the purpose of calming down.

Reducing restraint

Hundreds of school districts across the country use alternative methods and forgo use of restraints altogether.

Some local school districts said they have been making changes to help reduce incidents of restraint. 

Albany City School District Superintendent Kaweeda Adams said her district has seen a 35 percent reduction in the use of restraints from the 2016-17 school year through 2021-22.

Adams said the strategies they use involve teaching students about emotional regulation while they are calm, training staff members in trauma-informed approaches, adding more spaces where students can go take a break and connecting students to mental health services.

The Syracuse City School District worked for the past few years with Cornell University’s Residential Child Care Program, which developed a restraint curriculum, to train staff members in de-escalation and restraint techniques, create a restraint policy and review plans to respond to students in crisis, said Irastina Reid, the district's director of special education.

Glens Falls City Schools Superintendent Krislynn Dengler said her district has shifted to including more special education students in general education settings, promoted the use of sensory objects to calm some students, trained all staff members in de-escalation techniques, and added behavior analysts, social workers, psychologists and other staff members. 

Superintendent of Schools Krislynn Dengler speaks during an interview in her office in Glens Falls in August.

Superintendent of Schools Krislynn Dengler speaks during an interview in her office in Glens Falls in August.

Paul Buckowski/Albany Times Union

Both North Colonie Schools and Glens Falls City Schools said they will update their recordkeeping systems for incidents to help them conduct more careful analysis of when and why incidents occur.

“I would love to be able to say we didn’t have to use [restraints],” Dengler said.

For his part, Jonathan Moore, the former Ballston Spa student, said he’s speaking out about his experience being restrained with one main goal in mind.

“So I can get the school to do better,” he said.

Jonathan Moore, 12, who is autistic and non-verbal, types on his tablet which he uses to communicate.

Jonathan Moore, 12, who is autistic and non-verbal, types on his tablet which he uses to communicate.

Will Waldron/Times Union
About this series

A year-long 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.

Components of this investigation were supported with funding from the Data-Driven Reporting Project. The funding was used to pay for software and support to analyze handwritten documents and some freelance photography. The Data-Driven Reporting Project is funded by the Google News Initiative in partnership with Northwestern University | Medill and awards funds to investigative journalists working for local news outlets and outlets serving underrepresented communities across the U.S. and Canada.

If you have tips, documents, or other information that you would like to share with a reporter, please contact Emilie Munson at emilie.munson@timesunion.com or on Twitter: @emiliemunson; or Matt Rocheleau at 508-265-2050, matt.rocheleau@hearstmediact.com or on Twitter: @mrochele.

If you would like to share information anonymously, please indicate that when you contact us. For additional security, use encrypted methods. Signal: 347-541-8115, or securenewstips@protonmail.com.

When Schools Use Force

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