Parents of children who have died or been injured while being manhandled, held down or locked up in America's public schools are fighting back.
Dozens have filed lawsuits and many are speaking out publicly to end what they say is an epidemic of harsh measures being used in schools to subdue unruly or aggressive children – many of whom suffer from autism or other disabilities. They are mothers like Sheila Foster, whose 16-year-old son died after being restrained, allegedly for refusing to leave the basketball court at his school in Yonkers, just outside New York City.
"I know I won't feel him hug me anymore, or say, 'I love you, mommy,'" a tearful Sheila Foster, Corey's mother, told ABC News. "Someone has to be held accountable for this because my son is dead. And this shouldn't happen anymore to another child, to another family."
Foster has sued Leake & Watts, a special needs facility for students with behavioral and learning disabilities. The school has defended the actions of its staff, despite the tragic outcome. Surveillance video made public earlier this month shows the teenager playing basketball in the school gym alongside other students and staff members. Minutes later he is surrounded by school staff in a corner of the gym where it appears he is pushed against the wall and then restrained face down by four staff members. Nearly 45 minutes later he was removed from the gym on a stretcher.
"They circled him like thugs or a gang," said the family's lawyer Jacob Oresky in response to the surveillance video. "The staff members at Leake & Watts exercised a lot of force on Corey Foster and they killed him." An autopsy ruled Corey's death an accident, saying he suffered "cardiac arrest during an excited state while being subdued."
Steps taken in other schools to restrain misbehaving children, like the use of locked, padded cell-like rooms sometimes called "scream rooms," have also brought outcries. The mother of a seven-year-old boy in Phoenix, Arizona secretly videotaped the padded room in her son's school after he had been left there for the better part of a school day. She says she later learned he had been held in the room 17 times – though the school disputes that number, saying he was there three times.
"I was disgusted," said Leslie Noyes, the boy's mother. "There was one time that I know he was placed in the room a little after 10 a.m. He was there until the school day ended at 3:30 p.m. They brought him lunch in there. He ate it on the floor. He had urinated on the floor. They wouldn't let him out to use the bathroom."
Officials from the Deer Valley Unified School District said that, because of the pending lawsuit, they could not respond to questions about the case. But in general, spokeswoman Heidi Vega said, seclusion is "the last method of behavior management schools use with a student. Our staff is fully trained on non-violent crisis intervention and puts student safety first at all times. The safety of all students is important and remains a top priority."
In Kentucky, Sandra Baker said she was terrified when she showed up at school to find her son being restrained in what looked like a duffle bag. "Outside the room was the aide and [my son] was completely inside the bag, rolling around in it in the middle of the hallway with other kids around," she told ABC News. "I just kind of stopped and was stunned."
Baker brought her outrage to the local news media.