KIYC investigation finds some school districts are using potentially dangerous restraint methods on students with special needs
A Kane In Your Corner investigation found that some school districts are physically restraining students with special needs and not telling parents, a violation of state law. Some are also using a banned and potentially dangerous restraint method.
Restraint is a controversial topic in education. Some educators defend it as a last resort in emergencies while many advocates contend it does more harm than good.
The audio recording is difficult to listen to. Gianni Baroutoglou, a young boy with autism, can be heard screaming. Among the things he says are “No! No! What’s happening?” “You’re trapping my hands,” and “Don’t fight me!”
His mother, Jolyn Schettino, says the audio depicts her son being physically restrained at his former school in Mount Olive. She says when she first heard it, she was so upset that “I literally had to pull over and I vomited on the side of the road.”
Despite meeting with school officials several times, Schettino says she’s still not entirely sure what went on that day because school officials never provided her with a written incident report as the law requires.
Anthony Ratliff was restrained several times at a school in Lawrence Township. “They had a knee in my like chest… and I couldn't breathe,” he says.
Anthony’s mother, Adena Romeo-Ratliff, says she too was often kept in the dark in violation of state law. “I'd go to him and I'd say, ‘Hey, great job. There's no restraint paper in the bag today. You had a great day, it looks like. And he'd say, ‘No, I got restrained three times. They restrained me three times, mommy’,” she recalls.
That’s not supposed to happen. After Kane In Your Corner first investigated the practice of students being restrained, New Jersey lawmakers responded by passing a law in 2018, requiring schools to notify parents immediately when their kids are restrained, and follow up with a written incident report within 48 hours. Five years later, Kane In Your Corner spoke with numerous parents who said that the law isn’t being followed.
The law also banned the potentially dangerous practice of prone restraint, where kids are restrained face down, unless the child’s doctor gives written permission. But several parents tell Kane In Your Corner that part of the law is also being ignored. Romeo-Ratliff says she personally witnessed it.
“I saw my son face down on the ground, his hands behind his back, like a police officer would put someone, and one adult would sit on his feet and the other adult would be holding his arms,” Romeo-Ratliff says.
New Jersey law also says kids can only be restrained in an emergency, if they pose an immediate danger to themselves or others. But records show Anthony Ratliff was sometimes restrained for things that seemed more trivial, such as tearing a piece of paper, which his mother says was characterized as “destruction of property.”
Lawrence Township Schools Superintendent Ross Kasun declined to comment on Anthony’s case, saying the incidents of restraint happened before he took the job. In Mount Olive, Acting Superintendent Sumit Bangia insisted Gianni “was never restrained by our staff”.
But the recordings appear to tell a different story. In addition to Gianni complaining of staff “trapping his hands”, school personnel can be heard discussing whether to use a specific restraint technique.
It is legal for school personnel to physically restrain students in New Jersey, as long as the law is followed. In fact, state law requires school districts to train personnel in how to do it, something education advocate Renay Zamloot finds disturbing.
“Sometimes students are restrained for an hour,” she says. “The student doesn't become calm by being restrained. He's exhausted. He's traumatized and he's broken.”
Zamloot says the failure of school districts to report restraint to parents is a problem, but she says the law itself needs to be changed. “It should be the least restrictive procedure, and it should be stopped as soon as the emergency is over,” she says.
There are no statistics showing how many New Jersey students are restrained each year, but that may change under a law passed last year. It requires districts to report restraint incidents to the New Jersey Department of Education, and mandates that the NJDOE post the data online.
“If we don't know what the data is, then we don't even know how deep and how widespread of a problem this is,” says one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Anthony Zwicker (D – Hillsborough).
As for Anthony and Gianni, both are in new schools and their parents say they’re doing much better, in part because they are no longer being physically restrained. “All it took was getting him in the right kind of school with the right kind of support to really make progress,” Romeo-Ratliff says.