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Michigan kids deserve better school discipline policies

Dec 6, 2016

One of the most frightening, haunting and horrible stories I heard this year had nothing to do with politics. In September, an eight-year-old autistic child in Lake Orion was supposedly misbehaving in class.

So his teacher locked him in a padded room by himself for three and a half hours – a barbaric, medieval punishment called “seclusion and restraint.”

The frightened child, who is named Nathan, became hysterical and even tried choking himself, but the school apparently didn’t call his mother until he had wet and soiled himself. She was understandably angry beyond belief. You might have expected her next step would have been a multi-million dollar lawsuit.

But no. Seclusion and restraint are totally legal in Michigan. We have a chance, however, to end this terrible practice – but time is running out. A totally bipartisan package of 10 bills is now before the legislature – numbered HB 5409 through HB 5418.

Democrat Frank Liberati of Detroit’s downriver suburbs has been their main sponsor in the House. Two Republican senators, Rick Jones of Grand Ledge and Margaret O’Brien of Portage, have been the main backers in the state Senate.

“This is not about politics, but about doing what is right,” Tom Watkins told me. He’s been trying to end seclusion and restraint for years. A former state superintendent of public instruction, Watkins is now CEO of the Detroit-Wayne Mental Health Authority.

Watkins is a Democrat, but he’d be the first to tell you that the biggest champion of doing the right thing here is Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley. Calley, who himself has an autistic child, has been doing what he can to move these bills.

He had an eloquent column in the Detroit News yesterday that noted that “practices of this nature are no longer allowed in hospitals, and are heavily regulated in jails and prisons. The only citizens who have no legal protections against non-emergency restraint and seclusion are our kids while they are at school.”

And, as he notes, “there is not even a requirement to tell parents when it happens.”

Why schools still do this is a mystery. More than 10 years ago, as Calley notes in his column, the State Board of Education advised all the state’s schools to end non-emergency seclusion and restraint policies after a terrified child suffocated and died in restraints.

Unfortunately, the state board has only advisory powers. There doesn’t seem to be anything especially controversial about the bills ending seclusion and restraint, but the problem is that they don’t seem to be a special priority either in the current “lame duck” session of the legislature, which has been more concerned with pension and campaign finance laws.

What we do know is that if these bills aren’t passed this month, lawmakers will have to start all over in January, a process that could take months or more than a year.

That would almost certainly mean more terrified children, some of whom are incapable of understanding what is happening to them or why, will be forced to endure this horrible treatment.

You might consider contacting your state representative or senator, especially if they are among the Republican majority, and insist they move now to end seclusion and restraint.

This holiday season, that would be one way to help heal the world.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.