2018 Report to the UN, pt 5: Ontario Schools – Use of Restraint and Isolation Rooms

NOTE: We have split our UN report on Human Rights for Autistics in Ontario into sections and are blogging them. This is our section on restraint and isolation rooms in Ontario schools. 

Restraint and isolation rooms.
As far as we know, there is no provincial or federal organization that tracks the degree and frequency of restraints and isolations in special education classrooms. In fact, it appears most studies of autistic youth by the government and autism non-profits avoid discussion of this issue. What we hear from our members, from caseworkers and from families (as well as media accounts) is that violence, especially restraint and isolation, is common, and increasing.

Regulation is completely inadequate. Medical and other organizations publish “guidelines” on the use of restraint and isolation, but do not have enforcement against providers who cause harm, instead putting the onus on vulnerable individuals and their families to report to professional regulators or the public advocate. Cases that do go through the rigours of reporting are sealed and only rarely leaked to media. There is no publicly-accessible data on the degree or amount of abuse, so there is no way to codify, study or solve the problem.

Isolation. Isolation abuse in special education exists across Canada. In September of this year, an autistic boy in Alberta was stripped naked and locked in an isolation room. As the CBC reports:

“The room had paper taped over the window and was locked from the outside. The boy’s teacher later emailed the parents a photograph of the 12-year-old that showed him naked and covered in feces. When the father arrived at the school about 45 minutes after receiving the email, he found the classroom empty. When the father took the paper off the isolation-room window, he saw his son and heard him whimpering.”

Inclusion Alberta (an advocacy group) called on the province to ban or regulate the use of seclusion rooms, as no regulations existed. The Province of Alberta has now promised to enact regulation within weeks. It took an extreme situation to motivate the province to regulate. We wonder: what will it take to motivate other provinces?

In another reported case this year, a six-year-old student was locked in a storage room by a teacher who walked out of the room and left him there alone. She was punishing the child for a “meltdown”.

In Peel District (Ontario) a family is suing the School Board for placing their autistic son in an isolation room frequently, sometimes for the entire day. According to an investigation by Toronto Life, his first and second grade teachers “confined him to a small room the size of a walk-in closet, with concrete walls and no carpets or padding. The School Board calls these kinds of spaces “alternative learning environments,” or ALEs.

“Teachers would sit on a chair in front of the door to prevent him from leaving, and they covered the small window of the room with construction paper, blocking out the light. ‘If I kept acting up in the room,’ said Christian Thorndyke, ‘they’d add on more time.’ If he had time left over at the end of the day, he was told he’d need to return to the room the next day.”

At a new school in the same district, 9-year-old Christian was also isolated, despite a letter from his therapist asking the school to stop. “Christian often begged for food or water, or to use the washroom, and was ignored. Once, he urinated on the floor; he says he was given a mop and told to clean it up. One day, the stress and humiliation became overwhelming. Christian broke down. He wrote on the walls and began choking himself with his hands. Soon after, school administrators called his mother and told her to keep Christian at home.”

Restraint. Ontario school workers also use sedatives and restraints in place of de-escalation techniques. This year, a student in Ontario reported being put in restraints and injected with a sedative after walking out of school following a disagreement with another student. “They said when you calm down, they’ll take one (restraint) off one by one,” he said. “ I calmed down, they didn’t take one off. They put it tighter. I freaked out again and that’s when they put the needle in me.”

One of our Toronto-based members, who is now 20 years old, recalls his experience with restraint: “In Grade 3, I was physically restrained by school staff on an almost daily basis. Frightened, I would often try to escape by screaming, kicking…This of course made it only less likely that I would be released from the hold. At some point in time, it got so bad that I was temporarily expelled and homeschooled by someone sent by [the school district].

“The trauma that I endured in Grade 3 has stayed with me throughout my life and is at least partially responsible for several severe issues, such as c-PTSD, depression, Dissociative Identity Disorder and even problems in my sexual life due to the fact I had no concept of my bodily autonomy.”

Parents of autistic students in Ontario are given the option of sending a signed Do Not Restrain statement to the school. The fact that this kind of statement exists is a testament to the commonness of restraint in these classrooms. It gives proxy consent for restraint to the parents, begging the question: what happens to the children whose parents do not send the statement? Are they treated as a different class of child? Are schools and other settings making the best effort –or any effort –to create a trauma-informed classroom that doesn’t use restraints?

Children in special education also feel trauma at the impact of seeing classmates being restrained. A mom reports to us that she witnessed a violent restraint of a student that caused her to pull her own child from school. The program wouldn’t let parents visit the classroom, but one day she “snuck” past the receptionist and stepped into the classroom. In the centre of the room, a boy was being restrained and everyone was watching. She took her son home that day and began home educating him.

The fact that a parent would have to sneak in to see her child’s classroom may seem shocking, but it is not unusual in Ontario. At many schools the special education classroom is segregated and even parents are not allowed to enter. There are no rules requiring teachers to open their classrooms to parents. Because the classrooms lack transparency, a teacher can abuse vulnerable children with relative impunity.

When children do not have the capacity to report it and there are no witnesses, no action is taken to stop the abuse, year after year.

Read the full report