A teacher asks her students to take out a pencil for a pop quiz, but one child won’t pick up his pencil. The teacher repeats her request. The child refuses.

What happens next—what sort of discipline is meted out, how long it lasts, and whether administrators or parents are notified—may differ drastically from one state to the next.

While all educators struggle with how to cope with defiant or disruptive kids, there is no federal legislation and only a patchwork of state laws regulating how two of the most fraught responses—restraint and seclusion—are used with them. As a result, restraint and seclusion are misapplied on what could amount to millions of American schoolchildren each year, sometimes with deadly consequence.

Mississippi is one of five states without a policy governing restraint and seclusion in schools—but in a group that also includes New Jersey and North Dakota, it could be the next to set a baseline for how these interventions should be handled.

Some believe this change is long overdue in a state that still allows corporal punishment in schools. Horror stories about misbehaving children, many with disabilities, who are locked in supply closets or physically restrained with handcuffs and harnesses for infractions as minor as wearing the wrong color shoes have spurred headlines—and lawsuits—for years.

Mississippi students were forcibly restrained or secluded more than 700 times in the 2009-10 school year, according to the most recent online data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. But the actual number of incidents could be greater. Data on school discipline, including the use of seclusion and restraint, is self-reported by districts to the federal government. So it’s difficult to tell whether a district with zero incidents is restraint- and seclusion-free or whether it’s simply not keeping track. At the state level, there’s no snapshot whatsoever—Mississippi doesn’t collect data on restraint and seclusion.

The widely reported case of an autistic boy who was isolated in a wooden pen in a Lamar County, Mississippi, elementary-school classroom two years ago has helped highlight the glaring lack of accountability for school districts, parents, and advocates like Joy Hogge say.

Hogge, the executive director of Families as Allies, which provides training and support services for families of children with emotional and behavioral problems, said parents often hesitate to address potential abuse in their children’s classrooms because they may fear retaliation or lack the skills to navigate the school bureaucracy. She was heartened, however, that the state invited parent input at two public hearings last year on the proposed policy.  

“I think there’s a real opportunity here to kind of change that part of our culture,” Hogge said.

If a policy prevails in Mississippi, it would put the state in line with new federal guidance in the recently reauthorized Every Student Succeeds Act (formerly known as No Child Left Behind). The new law requires states to develop plans on how they’ll reduce the use of restraint and seclusion, as well as bullying, harassment, and student suspensions.

Ron Hager, a senior staff attorney at the National Disability Rights Network, called the ESSA language “a kind of foot in the door” toward ultimately doing away with restraint and seclusion.

For the time being, that’s far from being the case in Mississippi.

“They do whatever they want to do, whenever they want to do it, however they want to do it,” said Heather Rhodes, the mother of the boy who was secluded in the pen. She intends to file a civil case against the Lamar County school district, while a criminal complaint she filed against the teacher was dismissed in 2014.

Rhodes said she entered the classroom to find her son, Cade, who was 8 at the time, confined in a three-sided wooden pen, banging his head on the floor, screaming to get out and calling for her as his teacher held the gate closed with her foot.

Cade also has central auditory processing disorder (CAPD), which impairs his ability to listen and communicate back what’s been said or done. His teacher wanted him to sit down, but he knew his mother was on her way to his classroom with birthday treats for his classmates and wanted to find her, according to an investigative story by the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger.

The Clarion-Ledger reported:

The school dismissed the incident as no big deal, Rhodes said, but she was furious. “If I had that contraption in my house,” Rhodes said, “and my child told his teachers, ‘My mom puts me in a box when I’m bad,’ I would have been arrested and my kids would have gone to foster care.”

* * *

State by state, an effort to regulate these tactics and better protect students from potential abuse in their classrooms has slowly gained traction in the last six years, following a 2009 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The collected testimony from schools around the country included the case of a 14-year-old boy in Texas who died after being pinned down by a teacher; another involved a volunteer teacher’s aide in Florida who gagged and duct-taped 6- and 7-year-old students who were misbehaving.

Often in these cases, the GAO found, children with disabilities were forcibly restrained or isolated when they were not physically aggressive, and by staff who were not trained in these techniques.

Even in states with policies, there’s no guarantee that the adults in charge are aware or will heed them. Take the recent case of the Kentucky sheriff’s deputy who, in a viral video, is shown handcuffing an 8-year-old boy’s biceps together behind his back—his wrists apparently too small for the cuffs—because he had misbehaved. The boy has attention deficit hyperactive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, but the officer wasn’t properly trained to discipline elementary students, much less those with disabilities, according to an ACLU complaint. Kentucky’s policy explicitly prohibits mechanical restraints.

The GAO report and subsequent criticism of the practice by former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan led to several attempts to pass federal legislation that ultimately failed. “As education leaders, our first responsibility should be to make sure that schools foster learning in a safe environment for all of our children and teachers,” Duncan wrote in a letter to state education officials in 2009, urging them to take action.

A federal bill sponsored in 2013 by U.S. Representative Gregg Harper, a Republican from Mississippi, would have established minimum standards for the practice of restraint and seclusion, as well as guidelines for state reporting and enforcement. It also stalled.

Meanwhile, in the last few years, 25 states have either strengthened existing laws or adopted them for the first time, according to an analysis called “How Safe is the Schoolhouse?” an Autism National Committee report by Jessica Butler, an attorney and parent advocate.

In addition to Mississippi, New Jersey, and North Dakota, the states that remain without any law, policy or guidelines are Idaho and South Dakota, according to Butler’s report, last updated in July 2015.

Nationwide, far more often than not, the subjects of restraint and seclusion are children of color and children with disabilities. That’s evident in Mississippi, according to 2009 data from the Office of Civil Rights. Of the total 715 incidents of restraint and seclusion reported by schools that year, 72 percent involved black or Hispanic students while 28 percent involved white students.

* * *

L. René Hardwick, grew up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and returned to Jackson several years ago after working as a university professor and administrator and a K-12 consultant and advocate in places like Atlanta; Durham, North Carolina; and Baltimore.

Now the advocacy coordinator for the restraint-and-seclusion project run by the Mississippi American Civil Liberties Union, she said there are cultural and historical factors at work here that influence attitudes toward behavior management and classroom discipline. Those factors are at least partially rooted in Mississippi’s painful history of segregation.

“What’s going on in Mississippi and particularly Jackson … is simply a microcosm of the legacy of oppression that hovers over Mississippi as a state and us as a country,” she said.

“I believe you have certain groups, some of whom are our legislators, who are dedicated and determined to support” the status quo of white supremacy, either out of fear or ignorance, she said.

Now in Mississippi, when a child doesn’t follow the teacher’s instructions, “you don’t know where that case will lead,” Hardwick said.

If a child is being disruptive or fails to obey a teacher’s request, the “natural propensity of school personnel” in Mississippi, Hardwick said, is not, “to teach that child and guide that child, which takes time and needs to be repeated over and over to correct behavior.”

Many of Mississippi’s 490,225 students arrive at school from family environments strained by poverty and neglect, so it’s imperative that educators are prepared to meet them at the doors, Hardwick said. That means presenting school as a place of refuge, nurturing interpersonal relationships between adults and children, setting high expectations for teachers and parents, and, in the classroom, rooting curriculum in students’ real-life experiences.

Ensuring staff receive better training to prevent and respond to crisis situations involving children with disabilities and those in the general population is also badly needed, she said.

“What we’re pushing for is the tone of the policy to not be in reactive mode but to be in proactive mode,” Hardwick said, meaning it should promote a “climate of positive intervention” that starts at the top with effective district- and building-level leadership.

Some Mississippi schools have tried to address the problem of disruptive students on their own. In 2012, an alternative school for children who’d been suspended or expelled from other schools agreed to stop shackling students to fixed objects after the Southern Poverty Law Center sued Jackson Public Schools in 2011. The SPLC alleged that students were “handcuffed and shackled to poles” for up to six hours for non-criminal offenses such as violating the dress code or talking back to a teacher, Reuters reported.

The lead plaintiff in the case was an eighth-grader with a history of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, asthma and seizures who, on one occasion, was handcuffed to a pole for hours and had to call out to be taken to the bathroom, according to Reuters.

Advocate groups in Mississippi say requiring training for school personnel and prioritizing positive behavioral interventions ahead of force—all part of the current proposal being considered by state officials—will help avoid chaotic and potentially dangerous incidents like the ones in Jackson and Lamar County.

In fits and starts, legislators have moved to enact minimum standards for use of restraint and seclusion in Mississippi schools. But a tendency by the Republican majority to fiercely oppose limiting school districts’ local authority has stymied those efforts.

Skeptics of regulating restraint and seclusion frequently point to the education dilemma that’s caused anguish for teachers everywhere: How to preserve the learning environment for the many that is threatened by the few?

Republican Representative John Moore, the most recent chairman of the House Education Committee, said he’d consider a restraint-and-seclusion bill if one is reintroduced this year, but he is “wary” of placing limits on school districts’ ability to control students if they become violent.

“If you are a teacher or a school and you have a child that will just not be quiet or sit down, what do you do with that student? Do you let them just destroy the education for the rest of the class? Or do you do what needs to be done?” Moore said.

Moore, who’s spent 20 years in the House of Representatives—four of those as education chairman—said he grew up in an era when a call from the principal to his mother or father meant he was in for a spanking when he got home. Moore’s wife is a veteran elementary-school teacher.

He said he supports the use of restraint and seclusion in schools if and when “positive-reinforcement” strategies have been tried and are ineffective.

“People have to learn that there are consequences of bad actions and if they don’t, it only elevates down the road,” Moore said, “And if you don’t believe me, just look at our prison systems.”

The education department’s proposed policy would dramatically redefine the threshold for using physical restraint in Mississippi classrooms: If approved by the nine-member state Board of Education, restraint and seclusion could only be used as an emergency response when “all other verbal de-escalation measures have failed” and when the student poses a danger to themselves or others.

Pat Ross, the education department’s chief performance officer, said there’s no question about the need to have a policy. One of the major sticking points is whether the new rules would prohibit seclusion altogether, as the ACLU and other advocates groups have pushed for.

“Nobody likes for things to go badly in schools but sometimes they do and so restraint and seclusion has to come into play,” Ross said. “Taking seclusion off the table completely maybe (is) a little unrealistic.”


This story was produced in collaboration with The74Million.org.