On Wednesday, February 27, Rhode Island advocate Renee Smith will testify in Congress before the U.S. House Education and Labor’s Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education hearing on the use of restraint and seclusion in schools.

The hearing is titled “Classrooms in Crisis: Examining the Inappropriate Use of Seclusion and Restraint Practices”, and Smith was invited to testify because of her now eight-year-old child’s traumatic experiences in school. When Dillon, who has autism spectrum disorder, was in kindergarten and first grade, he and his parents struggled with the school administration for proper, positive supports for him. Restraint and seclusion were repeatedly used to manage Dillon’s behavior, despite the fact that his parents knew other positive methods would lead to a better outcome, and positive reinforcement was a part of the documented individualized education program (IEP) for Dillon with the school.

Far too many times, Dillon was restrained and dragged into the “blue space” – a walled and padded area, with a small opening with a pad cover to keep a child from leaving the space. Again and again, situations escalated to the point where 9-1-1 was called, and if Dillon’s parents didn’t arrive before the ambulance, he would be taken alone to the hospital. The repeated trauma of restraint and seclusion, the threat of going to the hospital, and continued interruptions to his education were having a major impact on Dillon and his family.

“Dillon’s work avoidance, we now know, was in direct reaction to the restraint and seclusion he was experiencing. The more he was restrained and secluded, the less he was interested in school work, which resulted in more restraint and seclusion, a constant downward spiral. It broke my heart when Dillon told us that he no longer trusted any of the adults in that school. Without the school working with us to change this dynamic, we had to do something – we found another public school with a different approach,” said Smith.

Dillon started fresh at a new school, where the behavior program allows children to float between a special education classroom and a regular education classroom for work. There are several cool down spaces and one open space within the office of the school behaviorist. Teachers provide positive reinforcement in their classrooms and one-on-one with their students. Within only two weeks of the new placement, Dillon was in a regular education classroom 100% of the time with supports.

“At his old school, Dillon was trying to communicate that the strategies used were not working for him and not allowing him to develop coping skills for the future. Today, Dillon is doing really well. With the proper supports, he has blossomed as a student and enjoys school,” said Smith.

The Arc Rhode Island (RI) Family Advocacy Network (FAN) recruited Smith to bring this perspective to the halls of Congress. The Arc RI FAN is a newly created office that will lead state-level public policy activities as well as provide training, public awareness and education, and grassroots advocacy building to protect the rights of Rhode Islanders with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). The Arc has tapped Joanna Scocchi, founder of Rhode Island Advocacy for Children, as the Director. The Arc RI FAN joins a network of more than 620 state and local chapters of The Arc that provide direct support services and advocate for the rights of people with I/DD around the country.

“Dillon’s experience is horrifying, yet it’s happening in schools across Rhode Island and across the country. Nationally, students with disabilities are roughly 20 times more likely than their peers without disabilities to be restrained and secluded. Our kids deserve better – the approach to their education and the environment in which they learn are key ingredients to their success,” said Scocchi.