VERMONT — All Brains Belong VT is working to end the traumatic practice of restraint and seclusion still legal in Vermont schools. It’s a practice that has led to deaths of children in over 30 states.
In Vermont, where “trauma informed” efforts are pushed forward in school systems, physicians and parents alike find the continued existence of restraint and seclusion methods to be extremely hypocritical.
Restraint or seclusion is used on 587 Vermont students each year, according to Lives in the Balance, a nonprofit working to eradicate the mistreatment of vulnerable children.
Nationally, 80% of public school restraints and 77% of public school seclusions are used on children with disabilities, such as autism, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Lives in the Balance, shows the effects of seclusion and restraint practices parents have seen in their children in a 2023 Vermont-made documentary.
The documentary opens with Dr. Mel Houser, an autistic physician, describing a case in which her five-year-old patient was secluded in a windowless room the size of a closet on their first day of school.
“When an adult finally opened the door after the child had screamed themselves to exhaustion, after 90 minutes, they saw that the child had removed all of their clothes, scratched up their tiny 40 pound body and urinated all over themself,” Houser said in the film.
“This was their first day. Their introduction to public school.”
Houser is the founder and executive director of All Brains Belong VT. When she started the 501(c)(3) organization she thought she would be focusing on neurodiversity affirming medical care, social connection opportunities and community education.
“Seclusion and restraint wasn’t even on my radar, and then all these kids came, and they’re all getting secluded and restrained,” Houser told the Reporter April 25, describing how shocked she was.
Incidents of restraint and seclusion are most likely underreported, especially in Vermont where certain criteria must be met in order for the Agency of Education to be notified, according to an April 13 testimony given to the House Committee on Education from Ted Fisher, AOE director of communications and legislative affairs.
Data is sent to the Agency of Education only if:
There is death, injury requiring outside medical treatment or hospitalization to staff or student as a result of a restraint or seclusion; or
Physical restraint or seclusion has been used for more than thirty (30) minutes; or
Physical restraint or seclusion has been used in violation of these rules, including the use of any prohibited restraint or seclusion.
“It doesn't matter whether you cross 30 minutes. Any minutes of seclusion and restraint are traumatic,” Houser said.
Fisher testified to the House regarding H.409, an act meant to keep Vermont students safe by restricting the use of restraint and seclusion in schools.
All Brains Belong VT encourages families whose children have been affected by restraint and seclusion to share their experiences with their local representatives.
Rep. Alyssa Black, Rep. Leonora Doge (D-Essex), and Rep. Rey Garofano (D-Essex) are sponsoring the bill along with 30 other representatives.
Restraint is a form of holding a child down and seclusion is isolating a student, in many cases keeping the student in an empty, locked room.
“Vermont allows for supine and prone restraints, the deadliest form of restraint outlawed in over 30 states,” All Brains Belong stated in an April 18 press release.
A supine restraint is done with two adults pining a child to the ground, face up, holding their arms and legs down. A prone restraint is done the same way, except the child is faced down on the ground.
Despite the current narrative that restraint and seclusion is a “normal way to deal with situations of dysregulation,” All Brains Belong states there is no safe way to use these methods on a student.
“They can cause severe physical and emotional trauma, increase a student’s risk of injury, exacerbate existing mental health conditions and harm their sense of trust and safety in schools,” All Brains Belong stated.
The Lives in the Balance documentary titled “Restraint & Seclusion in Vermont: What You Need to Know” is just under 30 minutes and can be watched here.
The documentary shows the harm of seclusion and restraint through interviews with Vermont educators, healthcare professionals and affected families.
It may be hard to watch as it discusses trauma, descriptions of restraint and seclusion and brief mentions of children’s death.
“You will see the urgency of ending the practices of seclusion and restraint,” All Brains Belong states.
While many recorded cases of students being restrained involve cisgender male students, it’s important to understand autism is a spectrum that affects people of all genders and all ages. One person’s symptoms will differ from others.
“There are stereotypes about how autism presents and it's important to appreciate that autism is a very broad spectrum and that there are so many autistic children of all genders, whose needs are not being met in schools,” Houser said.
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