© 2024 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Disability rights advocates call on Texas Legislature to better protect students from restraints

A young teenager with their back to the wall being handcuffed.
kali9/Getty Images/iStockphoto
The most common method of restraining children in schools is through physical means. But schools and school police also sometimes use straps or handcuffs.

Parents of students with disabilities gathered in the state capitol this week to share heartbreaking stories of the effects of restraints on their kids and ask lawmakers to pass laws that would better protect students from what they say is an abusive use of restraints in schools.

Jeanna TenBrink said three years ago, when her daughter Leah was in middle school, she started coming home with unexplained bruises and getting upset when it was time to go to school. But because Leah is autistic and mostly nonverbal, TenBrink didn’t know why her daughter was upset until she managed to get access to camera footage.

“I witnessed two teachers put Leah face down on the floor with both arms behind her back as her legs lifted in the air as she struggled to breathe,” TenBrink said.

“I later found out she was routinely put in a dark bathroom and frequently restrained,”she said.“I had no idea at the time what was happening in the classroom.”

“Restraint is not a one-time act. Repercussions last for a very long time,” TenBrink added. “That once smiling, vibrant, secure little girl is no longer there. The girl who loved to spend time with her sisters now watches them with fleeting interest. She is easily frightened, quick to anger and mostly likes to be alone.”

Thelma Lira said her son Damien was enrolled in Pre-K3 last school year to get early intervention after being diagnosed with ADHD, autism and a speech delay. Through classroom video footage and written statements, she learned that her son was being regularly “tied down to his chair throughout the school day.”

“My son went from being a happy little boy to having constant nightmares and grinding his teeth at night, which his doctor stated was an indication of repeated stress, having meltdowns and emotional distress at the sight of a chair that uses a belt such as a highchair or a car seat,” Lira said. “However, due to the current law and definition in regard to the use of restraints in school, no legal action was taken against the people responsible for this horrendous act.”

According to the most recently available data reported to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, 81% of Texas students physically restrained in schools have an individualized education plan due to a disability. At the time the data was collected during the 2017-2018 school year, just 7% of Texas students were enrolled in special education.

Texas public schools reported 6,402 instances of physical restraint that year and another 1,625 instances of restraints with the use of straps or other tools — a number that accounts for 45% of all mechanical restraints in U.S. schools.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Education News Desk, including H-E-B Helping Here, Betty Stieren Kelso Foundation and Holly and Alston Beinhorn.

At the press conference Jan. 30 at the Texas Capitol, disability rights advocates said they wanted to end the abusive and violent use of restraints, increase accountability by changing the definition of what counts as abuse when using restraints, and increase transparency by making more parents aware they have the right to ask for a camera in their children’s special education classroom.

“In the state of Texas, our penal code allows for almost blanket immunity for any educator who harms a student. We need to address that,” said Jolene Sanders Foster with the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities. “We need to make sure that any use of force is limited to the emergency to keep a student safe, other students safe, not these actions that we've been hearing about.”

Current Texas Administrative Code limits the use of restraints in schools to emergencies and must be used with the health and safety of the student in mind, but advocates said the law leaves cracks for misuse.

Sanders Foster said bills to address concerns about the penal code are still in the works, but two bills to limit the use of restraints have already been filed.

One bill,filed by Republican Lacey Hull, passed the House last session but ran out of time in the Senate. It would ban school police and security from using restraints on children 10 or younger.

“The use of restraints disproportionately affects students with disabilities, many of whom are experiencing an emotional episode where handcuffs or other restraints only exacerbates the situation and inflicts even more trauma,” Hull said.

This legislative session, Hull has partnered with Democratic Senator Royce West, who has filed an identical bill in the Senate.

The other bill,filed by Democrat Mary Gonzalez, would ban school staff from restraining students face down on the floor. The danger of that position became more widely known after the death of George Floyd.

TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.

Camille Phillips can be reached at camille@tpr.org or on Instagram at camille.m.phillips. TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.