Sunday, June 07, 2009

Torture in America's Schools


Last month the Government Accountability Office issued a shocking report on "selected cases of death and abuse"--not at Guantanamo Bay or other detention facilities for terrorists, but at schools for American children:
GAO also examined the details of 10 restraint and seclusion cases in which there was a criminal conviction, a finding of civil or administrative liability, or a large financial settlement. The cases share the following common themes: they involved children with disabilities who were restrained and secluded, often in cases where they were not physically aggressive and their parents did not give consent; restraints that block air to the lungs can be deadly; teachers and staff in the cases were often not trained on the use of seclusions and restraints; and teachers and staff from at least 5 of the 10 cases continue to be employed as educators.

The 10 cases involved children ranging in age from 4 to 14, and eight of the cases occurred at government schools. Here is just a sample:

At a public school in West Virginia, a 4-year-old girl with cerebral palsy and autism "was 'uncooperative,' so teachers restrained her in a chair with multiple leather straps that resembled a 'miniature electric chair.' " The girl was later diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder. "At least one of the three teachers responsible" is still at the school.

At a Texas public school, a 230-pound "special education teacher" placed a 129-pound boy of 14 "into a prone restraint and lay on top of him because he would not stay seated." The student died. The case was ruled a homicide but no charges were filed. The teacher "currently teaches in Virginia and is licensed to instruct children with disabilities."

In a California public school, the teacher of a 7-year-old autistic girl "secluded child in a walled off area because she refused to do work, sat on top of her because she was wiggling a loose tooth, and repeatedly restrained and abused her." The teacher "left the school but began teaching again in a different school district."

"GAO could not determine whether allegations were widespread," the report disclaims, but it makes clear they are more widespread than just the 10 cited cases:
GAO did find hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and death related to the use of these methods on school children during the past two decades. Examples of these cases include a 7 year old purportedly dying after being held face down for hours by school staff, 5 year olds allegedly being tied to chairs with bungee cords and duct tape by their teacher and suffering broken arms and bloody noses, and a 13 year old reportedly hanging himself in a seclusion room after prolonged confinement.

When the report came out on May 19, we figured it would be a good opportunity to find common ground with politicians and commentators who've been complaining for years about the "torture" of terrorists. We figured President Obama would issue an executive order banning torture in schools, the New York Times would publish an indignant editorial, Dick Durbin would take to the Senate floor to declare that the teachers unions remind him of the Gestapo, and that nut who writes for The Atlantic would proclaim himself "shocked to the core."

We were going to respond by saying that although we think there are circumstances under which it is justifiable to treat terrorists roughly, all good people can agree that torturing schoolchildren is categorically wrong. But we didn't have anything to respond to. As far as we are aware, the GAO's findings have been greeted with silence by the leading self-proclaimed "torture" opponents--though Education Secretary Arne Duncan did tepidly promise "he will ask state school chiefs around the country about the use of restraints and confinement of pupils in the classroom," according to the Associated Press.

Where's the outrage? Could it be that all the complaining about "torture" was but a pretext for some less noble agenda?


British plan to give parents the power to oust underperforming headmasters

Schools Secretary Ed Balls is considering a new scheme that will let parents overthrow poor headmasters. Parents would be able to rate their children’s education and trigger the overthrow of poor headmasters under plans being drawn up by ministers. Councils will be required to act on their views and send in superheads or open new primaries and secondaries where families are dissatisfied. Officials will also be expected to expand popular schools if large numbers of pupils miss out on their first choice school. The ‘parent power’ proposals are expected to form part of a White Paper to be unveiled later this month by Schools Secretary Ed Balls.

The measures, seen as an answer to Conservative plans to allow families to set up their own schools, will be launched as Gordon Brown desperately seeks to shift attention from questions over his leadership. The Tories branded the proposals as underwhelming. The Liberal Democrats said they were gimmicks.

Under the initiative, parents will be asked to rate schools on U.S.-style report cards, which will eventually replace traditional league tables. The report cards will give grades in each of up to six categories including parents’ views, pupils’ views, attainment, pupil progress and children’s well-being. These grades are expected to be condensed into an overall grade for the school, from A to E or even F.

Parents will also be asked to rate the schools in their area as part of plans to force councils to overhaul education provision if parents are unhappy. Parents already answer questionnaires from inspection body Ofsted and this mechanism is expected to be expanded to cover schools across an authority. Officials would be forced to respond to parental concerns, for example by changing the management of struggling schools. Underperforming schools could be taken over by higher-achieving neighbours. There would be an expansion in the number of ‘federations’ or chains of schools run by an executive head.

Outlining his thinking in a recent speech, Mr Brown said: ‘Where there is significant dissatisfaction with the pattern of secondary school provision, and where standards across an area are too low, then the local authority will be required to act. ‘This could mean either the creation of a federation of schools, an expansion of good school places, or, in some cases, the establishment of entirely new schools.’

A Tory party spokesman branded the proposals timid: ‘The Government should be introducing legislation to give teachers more power to keep order in the classroom and to sort out the exam system.’

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: ‘We will be interested to see what will be in the White Paper. ‘We support the direction the Government seems to want to travel in. But we are against a large letter being on the report card denoting a school’s category. ‘We think this would be incredibly misleading for everyone, especially parents.’


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