Sweet Max: I’m so sorry we failed you

Nothing upsets me more than learning about the physical restraint of children with autism in school.

Basically, these students are punished for having a disability. The following story is what prompted this post:

Restraint Death Prompts School To Close

A teenager with autism died at Guiding Hands School in El Dorado Hills, Calif. after being placed in a restraint hold, authorities said. (Sawsan Morrar/The Sacramento Bee/TNS)

As a  middle school special education teacher, I work with students with emotional and behavioral disorders as well as students with autism.  I teach my team that you don’t punish a student with autism for not running the same social race as their typical peers. Restraining them and throwing them into isolation does not improve behavior. Anyone working with students with autism who are doing this need to stop and get more training. Any administrator who thinks this is okay needs to be in a different line of work.

There may be a reason, very rarely, when a violent student may need to be removed from a situation. But if that’s the case, then they are in the wrong placement. And if that happens, the teacher should remove the other children from the room and help the child calm down.

But too often this doesn’t happen. Take a look at this video of a sixth grader being handcuffed. This is just one of many, many videos that you can find. This is exactly why I pulled my own sons and homeschooled them during their elementary and middle school years:

I have a student who pokes me all day long. He changes the level of my chair and he tapes my laptop shut. I have never once felt the need to handcuff him or call the police. His poking me is his way of communicating with me. I replace the behavior with another activity or behavior. I redirect him with visuals. I genuinely care about him as a fellow human being. Every night when I’m falling asleep I am thinking of ways to reach my students with behavior issues. I’m constantly praying for ideas, researching for solutions. Caring teachers do not restrain their students in violent ways. They certainly don’t hold them down for hours until they die.

I just have to wonder when I see videos and read these horror stories – were there visual supports in place for these students? Was there a task system in place they could understand and interact with? Was the staff trained in de-escalation techniques? Did they have a relationship with the child or was the child merely seen as a nuisance?

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that students who need restraint when they’re older probably didn’t receive the correct interventions as young students. Our public schools are sorely behind in how to teach and reach these students. For the most part, the public schools are doing it wrong. They focus far too much on academics and not enough on social-emotional learning. (I believe this is true for all students, not just those with autism.) We need to re-examine the purpose of education. Is it just to keep score or to reach the child where they are so that they can live a full and meaningful life?

When I look at the pictures of Max, I just don’t see a student who couldn’t have been defused and de-escalated from violence. There is light in those eyes. Those eyes are communicative eyes. Those eyes tell me he could be reasoned with.

(Sawsan Morrar/The Sacramento Bee/TNS)

Were the teachers more into controlling and being right than being caring and having a relationship with Max? Were the teachers triggering him? I have witnessed too often teachers who try to be “in control” by being confrontational. Confronting is not the best way to defuse most situations. Did they have a relationship with Max? You don’t restrain students you care deeply about and have a relationship with.

(Sawsan Morrar/The Sacramento Bee/TNS)

To be fair, I wasn’t there. But I have been in the presence of educators who have physically dragged students down halls into isolation rooms while I cried my eyes out in anger in my own classroom. Nothing makes me more furious than to experience the terror of a child with autism being restrained and misunderstood.

Behavior is communication. Maybe Max wasn’t complying with an urgent directive. I don’t know. We’ll find out when this goes to court. Or maybe not. Too often schools put gag orders on parents when they reach a settlement and the horrors of what goes on is hidden from the public.

Every school working with children with autism should have trained experts in how to defuse violent students. (We don’t know yet if Max was violent.) My current district certifies special education teachers through the Crisis Prevention Institute.  We get refresher courses all throughout the year on how to safely deal with volatile students. But the most important training we get is how to de-escalate students so that violence doesn’t occur in the first place. I work with an amazing team who gets that.

The name of Max’s school was Guiding Hands. It gives me chills knowing guiding hands held this boy down until he died.

I’m sorry, so sorry, for Max and his family. Our society’s education system failed him.

This should never happen.

May it never happen again.

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