ATLANTA – Don King didn't have a clue his son, Jonathan, was being put in a seclusion cell at school for hours because of bad behavior — until the 13-year-old hanged himself while in "time out."
Now, King and his wife, Tina, are pushing state education officials to pass a policy banning the use of solitary confinement in Georgia schools, which they say led directly to their son's death in 2004.
Seclusion is a controversial — and sometimes dangerous — disciplinary tactic that 19 states, including Georgia, do not regulate in any way, according to a new study from the U.S. Department of Education.
"It took the death of my son for everybody to start listening about this problem," said King, a construction worker who lives in Gainesville, north of Atlanta. "I wish we had known they were locking him up like that or we would have taken him out of that school. They treated my kid like a prisoner."
The federal report released this week stems from Education Secretary Arne Duncan's query to state school chiefs last year on policies for confinement and restraint of misbehaving students. The report shows that even though 31 states have some type of policy, many are weak and do not clearly define proper disciplinary measures for teachers dealing with sometimes violent children.
But the report does show that many of the states that have no policy are in the process of developing regulations, and a handful of the states that have policies are reviewing them to ensure they are sufficient.
Duncan told federal lawmakers last year that he wants to be sure "every state has a real clear plan as to how to do this in a way that makes sense and doesn't jeopardize, doesn't endanger children."
For the first time, federal lawmakers are considering legislation that would prohibit restraint and seclusion in most circumstances and require training for educators on effective behavior management. The bill passed the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee earlier this month.
"Schools are the Wild West — anything goes," said Leslie Lipson with the Georgia Advocacy Office, which is pushing for legislation that would ban both restraint and seclusion in Georgia. "We have seen instances of restraint and seclusion where teachers and other officials have used Velcro, duct tape, hog tying — kids locked in storage closets. All sorts of perversions."
Nationally, at least 20 deaths since 1990 have been attributed to restricted breathing tactics used as school discipline, according to a federal report released last year. One mother told investigators that her 4-year-old autistic daughter born with cerebral palsy came home with bruises on her chest, calves and wrists after she was strapped to a chair for throwing tantrums, according to the report from the Government Accountability Office.
On the Net:
Georgia Advocacy Office: http://www.thegao.org/
U.S. Department of Education: http://www.ed.gov/