FREDERICK, Md. (TND) — According to the Department of Education, more than 100,000 students in a single school year were subjected to a set of controversial practices known as seclusion and restraint, where children are isolated in special rooms or tied down in certain scenarios. With calls to ban the practices growing louder, Congress is again trying to pass legislation it says will protect students, specifically those with disabilities who are disproportionately impacted.
Kristi Kimmel has been slowly watching her 14-year old son Zeke slip away from the joyful boy she used to know. Diagnosed at an early age with autism, Zeke had dealt with challenges. But Kimmel says he loved school and had mastered more than 20 words.
In 2018 though, she says he began a devastating decline. Zeke began harming himself in class and stopped speaking altogether, with the boy unable to even call her "mommy" anymore.
"This has been an absolute nightmare. It’s heartbreaking. He, at the worst point of all of this, had lost so much weight, he went down to 65 pounds and was gaunt," the Maryland mom told us. "He had been beating himself and there was no connection. I would look in his eyes and there was nothing looking back at me."
Kimmel told us she can trace the start of the decline to another significant event: Zeke's start at a new school in Maryland. Soon after he began, he was repeatedly subjected to seclusion and restraint, which a Spotlight on America investigation found are used on thousands of children nationwide, resulting in injuries and deaths.
I'm just absolutely shocked that we're still doing these practices. I mean, it's barbaric honestly," said Kristi Kimmel, the mother of a special needs student who was repeatedly secluded and restrained.
Kimmel provided Spotlight on America with pages and pages of documents showing Zeke was being secluded multiple times at school, sometimes as often as 12 times per day.
Despite the Department of Education saying seclusion and restraint should only be used "if a child's behavior poses imminent danger of serious physical harm" to themselves or others, records show Zeke was often secluded for simple acts like pinching or grabbing.
After reports detailing the use of these practices were sent home, Kimmel contacted the school. "I called first and said, 'You know, what's going on? He's never had this happen before.' 'Well, that's how we do it here. You have to trust our process. This is our policy and it could be he's just having a hard time transitioning.' Then something inside me said, 'you need to keep questioning this,'" she told us.
Kimmel kept questioning, with the Department of Justice eventually launching an investigation in 2020. The district involved reached a settlement with the DOJ, agreeing to stop secluding students and update its restraint policies.
That decision impacted just one district in one state. But, there have been calls for wider action related to the use of these practices in schools across the nation.
A 2019 analysis of seclusion and restraint laws done by researcher Jessica Butler found a patchwork of regulations across the country when it comes to why and when students can be restrained or secluded, and how these incidents are reported to parents and the state.
Butler's research found that while 30 states have some meaningful protections against the practices, only a handful have outright bans specifically against seclusion. That's something Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., wants to change.
We know it's a serious problem. We know children are being inflicted with harm with the strategy. We know there are much better ways to modify behavior. And so let's just do it," said Scott.
Scott, who serves as chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, is again proposing a federal bill, the Keeping All Students Safe Act, that would completely ban seclusion in U.S. schools along with certain types of restraint.
But similar legislation has repeatedly failed on Capitol Hill. This time around, there is a companion bill in the Senate, but a check of both pieces of legislation on Congress.gov shows there's not a single Republican among the dozens of co-sponsors in either body of Congress.
We asked Scott how sponsors can reach across the aisle to get Republican support for the bill. He told us, "I think when you look at the research, it shows that it's counterproductive. And if you just stick to the facts, the research, the evidence, you'll find that this is a bad strategy that inflicts harm on students. And unless you are interested in inflicting harm on students, you'd be interested in getting rid of seclusion and restraint."
Some Republicans say the interest is in protecting states' rights and giving local districts the power to make their own decisions. That point of view is reflected in statements made by lawmakers during a recent House hearing that included testimony about seclusion and restraint.
Supporters of these practices also claim they're needed to protect teachers and staff in certain scenarios, pointing to threats and actual incidents of harm.
In early March, a Florida teacher in her thirties had to be hospitalized after police say she was attacked by a 5-year-old special needs student who was in the process of being secluded.
In a 911 call obtained by Spotlight on America, the caller tells the dispatcher, "This teacher got hit in the head and she was throwing up right after. She was assaulted by a student."
Still, top education leaders have long maintained these practices aren’t effective at stopping problematic behavior. In 2012, then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a report, "there continues to be no evidence that using restraint or seclusion is effective in reducing the occurrence of the problem behaviors that frequently precipitate the use of such techniques."
And 10 years later, current Education secretary Miguel Cardona suggested during a February conference that teachers need better tools.
We must recognize that when those restraint and seclusion events happen, it creates trauma," Cardona said. "Unfortunately, in many cases, it looks like it’s used as a primary option. We have to change that mindset.
Spotlight on America reached out to the School Superintendents Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association to ask about their stance on these practices. None of the organizations provided their positions on this issue.
But parents like Kristi Kimmel, whose children have been secluded and restrained, say it's time to end the use of these tactics. She knows firsthand they can have a deep impact, leaving behind the kind of emotional scars her son Zeke is still trying to repair.
Although her son has improved, Kimmel says she's waiting for the day he'll again call her 'mommy.'
I would love it. I really would. There’s just something when your child looks at you and says, 'mommy.' It's in there. It's just gonna take some time, I think," she said.