Thousands of autistic and disabled schoolchildren have been injured and dozens have died after being restrained by poorly trained teachers and school aides who tried to subdue them using at times unduly harsh techniques, an ABC News investigation has found.
With no agreed upon national standards for how teachers can restrain an unruly child, school officials around the country have been employing a wide array of methods that range from sitting on children, to handcuffing them, even jolting them with an electric shock at one specialized school. Some have locked children in padded rooms for hours at a time. One Kentucky teacher's aide is alleged to have stuffed 9-year-old Christopher Baker, who is autistic and was swinging a chair around him, into a draw-string duffle bag.
"When I got to the end of the hall and saw the bag, I stood there like, 'Hmmm, what in the world?'" the boy's mother, Sandra Baker, recalled in an interview with ABC News. She had arrived at the school to find her son wriggling inside the "sensory bag." "It was really heartbreaking to walk up and see him in that."
Earlier this year, Sheila Foster's son Corey, 16, was the latest child to die at school, when staff members at a special needs facility in Yonkers, New York held him face down for allegedly refusing to get off the basketball court. Sheila Foster said witnesses later informed her that Corey told the staffers he couldn't breathe, but they allegedly persisted, reportedly telling him, "If you can talk, you can breathe." The school said this account is not substantiated.
In an interview that will air on "World News with Diane Sawyer" and "Nightline" Thursday, Sheila Foster said she watches the time-lapse security video of her son nearly every day, hoping for a different ending. "Every time just looking at these pictures, I know I won't feel him hug me anymore, or say, 'I love you mommy,'" she said. "That was the last time he was alive and I want to see that."
How to safely handle an out-of-control student has been a longstanding issue for parents whose children attend special schools for those with autism or with behavioral or developmental problems. But experts told ABC News it has become increasingly vexing for officials in traditional public schools as they have sought to accommodate children with special needs. Many of the schools provide little or no training to teachers and staff for how to intervene when the student misbehaves. That has left teachers and school administrators to find their own solutions, at times with terrible outcomes.