On behalf of four families, attorneys for R.I. Legal Services and the ACLU of Rhode Island today filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) against the West Warwick and North Kingstown school districts for excessively and unlawfully restraining their young children, resulting in mental health trauma and physical injury. “Restraint” is the use of physical intervention to immobilize a person or limit their movement; by law, it can only be used in a crisis and to prevent injury, and for the shortest time possible. 

Two of the children attended Greenbush Elementary School in West Warwick and two attended Davisville Academy in North Kingstown. They all have special education plans that address behavioral difficulties and other disability-related issues. One of the children is only six years old, one is eight and two are ten.

The complaints detail the significant number of times the children have been restrained. One child experienced 45 incidents of hands-on intervention, was bruised more than once, and was denied the opportunity to use the bathroom and urinated on himself. Another child was restrained at least 14 times, sometimes for more than half an hour at a time. He grew so desperate that, according to school data, he eloped 40 times during the school year. A third child, restrained 25 times, started losing control of his bladder due to anxiety, and once escaped out of the school window and ran all the way to a road before being apprehended.

One mother surprised two school personnel in the act of restraining her small child in a face-down “prone” restraint, which is illegal because it can lead to asphyxiation. She also saw a small padded room the size of a closet where some of the restraints occur. Her daughter was restrained 18 times in just 6 weeks and came home bruised and frightened. The mother said: “What happened to my child was horrible. I don’t want any other child or parent to go through this. If I put my hands on my child the way it happened in school, DCYF would take my child away.”

A cover letter included with the complaints to the DOJ emphasizes that the “large number of restraints experienced by each child, and in some instances their duration, as well as injuries resulting therefrom, are indicative of a pattern where restraint has become a norm rather than a warning to adjust to alternative and preventative strategies.” The letter notes that when two of the students secured school placements elsewhere, they were not restrained at all in the months following their transfers, demonstrating that positive and preventative approaches, required by law and supported by research, were in fact effective and rendered restraint unnecessary.

Data obtained by public records requests and included in the complaints also indicate that these two schools have used restraints at very high rates compared to other Rhode Island public schools, and that restraints are applied repeatedly against just a few children. During the 2021-2022 school year, Davisville Academy reported 102 restraints involving six children, and Greenbush Elementary reported 546 restraints involving 22 children. Unlike private schools addressing special education needs, programs developed by school districts for children with behavioral difficulties do not require licensing or approval from the R.I. Department of Education (RIDE). While school districts must provide annual restraint data for each school, it does not appear that extremely high restraint rates at particular schools have resulted in additional inquiry or oversight by RIDE.

The complaints, filed by RILS attorney Veronika Kot and ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Ellen Saideman, argue that the repeated use of restraints and/or seclusion on the children violates their rights under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The complaints seek a variety of remedies from the DOJ, including compensatory education and mental health counseling, revisions to school procedures, improved oversight and accountability, and elimination of the use of restraint as punishment.

RILS attorney Kot said today: “Repeated restraint creates an ever-escalating situation with a potential for high risk of mental trauma and physical injury. This is why it should never be normalized or used as punishment and why the law only permits its use where there is imminent risk of harm to self or others. Even then, the situation must be reassessed to determine how to prevent such crises in the future. One of the children we are representing, who was repeatedly restrained in just the first few weeks of school, has had not had a single instance of serious misbehavior, let alone restraint, since being placed out of district in an appropriate setting.”

ACLU cooperating attorney Saideman added: “Based on the school records of the children whose parents bring these complaints, little was done to reassess the underlying needs of these children and to provide appropriate interventions, even after multiple restraints. Only when the parents contacted an attorney did that change.  It is a red flag to change course when a child is being restrained multiple times.  Using restraints can cause post-traumatic stress disorder as well as physical injuries.  Children have died from the use of prone restraints, a restraint used for at least one of these students.”

A copy of the letter to DOJ and a summary of the four complaints can be found below. For privacy reasons, the names of the families are not being released. However, a parent may be available for an interview, through one of the attorneys, with the condition that only their first name be used.