Prejudged, Restrained, Secluded
Do you know what these are used for? Are they some sort of police restraint for adults who have committed a premeditated violent crime? Some type of recreational use for consenting adults?
Well, I am not laughing. They are neither used for protecting us against the most violent in our society or for society’s own private enjoyment.
Instead, a primary school has asked for written permission from a parent to use Velcro ‘wrist straps’ such as these on their 5 year old learning-disabled, non-verbal son when he returns to school in September. Even more disturbingly, they want to use them “at all times”. Their reason is simple and yet so fundamentally flawed: “it is so staff can ensure his safety” as “he wouldn’t understand the meaning of social distancing”. If you don’t feel outraged and frankly disgusted at such treatment of a vulnerable child, I suggest you take another long hard look at these ‘wrist cuffs’; or perhaps we should call them ‘shackles’ or ‘manacles’. How can this be happening in our supposedly enlightened society?
From my own son’s experiences, I am not at all surprised. What really amazes me is that the school actually asked the parents’ permission to use them. Legally, schools can freely engage in any sort of restraint and isolation, as long as they can justify it is necessary at the time. No doubt the school has convinced itself that this will keep the child safe from Covid-19, but there are some sinister undertones here of premeditated control in what is likely to be (for the school) a potentially challenging child, and this makes me feel very uneasy.
Surely very few five-year olds, learning disabled or not, “understand the meaning of social distancing”. Does the school claim they can ensure the safety of all the other children at that school by having enough staff so that each and every child can be tethered to an individual teaching assistant for the whole day? Of course not. Schools may say it is done in the child’s own interests “so staff can ensure his safety” but in truth it is being done for the convenience of the school and staff. Restraint is still restraint, however much one may try to lessen its impact by quoting Health and Safety, or softening the words.
Delve a little deeper into the terminology of restraint and you will find physical restraint holds being described in terms such as “seated double embrace”, “caring C”, or “caring C around the ears”. It is almost possible to convince yourself it is acceptable and reasonable, because the descriptors sound comforting, caring and safe. But have you tried Googling these terms? You won’t easily find demonstrations of these restraints online - or indeed anywhere else - because the companies who advocate and teach such practices do everything they can to keep them quiet. After all, they wouldn’t want a public outcry. In our son’s case, we still haven’t discovered if “caring C around the ears” is truly a genuine hold advocated by a particular restraint company; or whether it is a school construct (that is, an adaptation based on other restraints). I honestly find it hard to believe that holding a disabled child around the head would ever be legally permissible.
Allowing a school to try to predict in advance the potentially challenging behaviours of a child by assigning methods of restraint, even before they have returned to school, is directly contradictory of the ethos of the companies who train school staff in such methods. In fact, many of these companies advocate that their techniques involve 95% de-escalation and 5% restraint, with restraint only used as a last resort. So why is pre-emptive restraint apparently happening? Unfortunately, when schools are understaffed, underfunded and under pressure from government, the easy option is to remove a child and put them somewhere out of the way; where if they are disruptive, they cannot be heard.
All of which brings me to my next point
Isolation and Seclusion
In addition to restraint, many schools throughout the U.K. are telling parents that in September their disabled child will have to be “in a room, on their own/with one member of staff” for their own wellbeing and in order to keep them safe from Covid. I am stunned that isolation and seclusion are advocated in the same sentence and justified as being necessary for the weakest of Health and Safety reasons. It is important to note that “in a room on their own” could be regarded as ‘seclusion’, and as such is illegal under the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
So why are schools finding this necessary? My own opinion is that in September space will be at a premium and each school is likely to have to create smaller bubbles/groups within classrooms. I can easily imagine the only remaining space for challenging, learning disabled children will be the small isolation rooms which most schools have, but usually don’t tell you about. My son’s ex-school called it the “Blue Room”, “Quiet Room” or “The Den”, again using terms which sound reasonable, friendly and acceptable.
Having finally discovered by chance that my son was being put into such a room whilst we were trying to determine why his mental health was deteriorating, I can tell you they are extremely small spaces, often with dark padded walls, usually no windows and subdued lighting. Schools might disagree, but to a child I imagine this feels like a punishment. It might possibly keep them safe from Covid, but what is this doing to their mental health and wellbeing? Indeed, my son developed a new, violent and distressing epileptic seizure type – no doubt triggered by mental distress – whilst going through a prolonged period of restraint and isolation.
So, psychologically, what damage are we doing to our most vulnerable children? What message do wrist restraints - which look very much like handcuffs - convey to our disabled children? What does putting them alone in a small darkened room, resembling a prison cell, for extended periods of time do to a child who already finds the school environment intimidating, socialisation difficult and the school work near impossible? It reinforces the belief that they are different, worthless, second rate in comparison to their neurotypical counterparts, and it likely feels that they are being punished for failing to fit in. Their physical health may also start to deteriorate: my son lost 10kg in weight and became extremely anxious at the end of eight traumatic months. What of a child’s human rights? Where is their legal protection?
Interestingly, neurotypical children do not seem to be having similar measures placed upon them in September. And I am certain that those staff carrying out such punitive measures would never conscience this happening to their own children.
Having had the government reassure us that children are less likely to catch Covid and, if they do, it will be not as severe, how can schools justify this level of restraint and seclusion in any form? Surely tethering a child to an adult with a short length of plastic covered wire is increasing both the child’s and teaching assistant’s risk of catching or spreading the virus? The child may not “understand social distancing”, but there is no possibility whatsoever of distancing when one is physically attached to someone else.
I understand this is a difficult time for any school, with space being in short supply and staffing likely to be reduced, but imagine just how much more difficult it is for child with a learning disability? Children with learning disabilities will already have significant difficulties getting back to school in September after a long period away. What they need is time, space, patience, continuity of care and familiarity of environment. They should be allowed to slowly find their feet, in a loving, caring and compassionate setting, with staff who fully understand their needs however challenging they might be.
What worries me at the moment is that during a time of public unrest and fear, when Head Teachers are being put under huge pressure both financially and logistically, discrimination is being meted out - whether consciously or not - as plans are made for the forthcoming term. Those children with difficult or challenging behaviour - or even just with limited understanding - are seen as inconvenient or a burden and are being prejudged with little compassion or understanding. At a time when learning disabled children need the most help, many in education are conveniently justifying their actions by saying it is a way of protecting against the risk of catching Covid19 and are thus keeping the child safe. This is dishonest.
To those running our schools I say this: stop for a moment, take a deep breath, think about your actions and please act appropriately. Alongside discrimination, you are violating a child’s human rights; and when behaving this way towards a vulnerable child you are no better than a bully.
With thanks to Beth Morrison, Positive and Active Behaviour Support Scotland (PABSS) and the International Coalition Against Restraint and Seclusion (ICARS), who have worked together to create the survey from which some of the above information has been taken.
If you feel your child is being unfairly treated on their return to school, please complete the ‘PABSS/ICARS Return to School Survey: Restraint and Seclusion Ireland and UK’ in order to give your child a voice.