Zachary’s laughter has been called infectious. One specialist even opined that it sounded much like Charles Schultz’s famous character, Snoopy.
The breathtaking sounds of pure joy that seem to burst forth from deep inside his belly are a special treat these days. Zachary doesn’t laugh much anymore.
There’s a reason my six-year-old’s giggles have been replaced by meltdowns. His story deserves to be told because he is not alone. There are many children just like him—their voices must be heard. And if we have any compassion, we must listen.
This is Zachary’s story.
It was only the third day of first grade—Aug. 26, 2015—that my child was involuntarily committed to a hospital more than two hours from my home.
Working as a reporter for a daily newspaper with beats consisting of breaking news and education, I was preoccupied with an article when I received an email from Zachary’s principal.
“Something’s wrong,” she wrote.
I wouldn’t know just how much was wrong until arriving at the school, which was a 30-minute drive from my office in New Bern, N.C.
Zachary had not been properly diagnosed yet, but we would learn he suffered from Generalized Anxiety Disorder and an unspecified neurodevelopmental disorder, possibly Asperger’s Syndrome. Once I arrived at the school, I learned from the principal that Zachary was restrained in front of his classmates and physically carried to the principal’s office, where I would find him on the floor in the middle of a meltdown with at least five adults staring in disbelief at him.
Due to the traumatization from the restraint, he was curled in the fetal position. He would not speak. His anxiety was extreme after being the subject of glares from the adults standing above him.
The School Resource Officer was called by officials to the school, where he promptly placed Zachary in the back of a Sheriff’s vehicle without permission, then proceeded to the nearest hospital where he was involuntarily committed due to “tantrums at school,” per the hospital report.
Zachary spent five days at a children’s hospital. His little mind couldn’t comprehend why he was taken away. Due to this situation, I was forced to inform my editor of the need for me to be close by in order to comfort my child during the hour of visitation allotted each day.
I wish I could say that Zachary’s story is one of a few. Perhaps his is more egregious in the fact that he was forced by law enforcement into the back of a patrol car and had his civil rights even more violated by being involuntarily committed to a hospital due to a manifestation of his disability.
But Zachary is not alone.
A 2014 National Public Radio Investigative report found that restraints were used at least 267,000 times each year in schools throughout the United States.
After his hospitalization, Zachary had many lonely days at school. While his friends enjoyed the freedom of the monkey bars, he spent recess alone in the “Choice” room. He wasn’t even afforded the luxury of lunch with friends. And he was restrained on many more occasions before I finally had enough and at the advice of his doctor decided to quit my job to homeschool him.
When asked recently if he would return to the school if teachers were properly trained and didn’t restrain him, he looked at me and said, “Mommy, you would do that to me?”
I simply replied, “No,” while secretly wiping away tears.
Things don’t have to be this way, though. There needs to be a nationwide ban on all restraint and seclusion in schools. Many opponents believe this is an unrealistic goal and that allowing these pseudo behavioral techniques “in extreme situations” is necessary to keep a child safe from himself and to protect those in the classroom.
The problem is there is no universal definition of “extreme.” Was Zach’s behavior extreme? No. Not to me or to any teacher or administrator properly trained in working with special needs children. But to his teachers, it was extreme behavior and their reaction has caused extreme damage to my child.
There is proof that a restraint and seclusion free environment is realistic. Virginia-based Grafton Integrated Health Network, an organization that works with children and adults with autism and co-occurring psychiatric diagnoses, went restraint and seclusion free ten years ago. Since then, their client and staff injury rate has dramatically gone down, while employee satisfaction has increased. They are now teaching their system, Ukeru, to others across the country in order to create a trauma informed environment for addressing aggressive behavior.
Perhaps if more educational bodies knew about this approach, my 60-pound six-year-old wouldn’t have ever been placed in the back of the patrol car on that hot summer day. We also wouldn’t have to travel the 30-mile stretch of highway for trauma-based therapy each week.
Due to the enduring trauma from that day and others where Zachary was placed in holds and held in seclusion from his peers, I no longer write as a journalist. I write for Zachary with the hopes there will be more days filled with laughter.
The views expressed in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the NLM Family Foundation.