Smart Ass Cripple: When a Good Name Is Not Enough

I think the most influential people in Washington, D.C., are the Bill Namers. They have a very important job. They have to think of catchy names for bills. This is essential for the successful marketing of a piece of legislation.

“Unfortunately, there’s this perception that teachers need restraint and seclusion to keep themselves safe. It’s about compliance and control. It’s about a failure of the system and the system wants to keep doing the same thing.”

The key to effectively naming a bill is to make it sound so virtuous that it intimidates away all would-be detractors. For instance, if you name a bill something like the Child Happiness Promotion Act, even if it’s about giving an extra zillion dollars to the Pentagon to buy bombs, no one wants to publicly come out against it.

Another favored technique is to give the bill a name that forms an unquestionably virtuous acronym, such as the SMILE Act. Who wants to be branded as anti-SMILE?

At first glance, it seems like the Bill Namers did a good job naming the Keeping All Students Safe Act, which was introduced in November. Who’s going to speak out against keeping all students safe?

But actually, legislation by this name has been introduced in every Congress since 2009, and it has always been controversial. Why? 

The current bill, like the previous versions, would make it illegal for any school receiving federal funds to seclude a child in solitary confinement or use dangerous restraint practices that restrict breathing, such as prone or supine restraint, except in emergency situations.

I know that sounds like I didn’t answer my own question. What’s so debatable about not physically restraining kids, either with muscle power or with things like straps, and/or locking them involuntarily alone in a room, when they misbehave?

It’s certainly not an isolated problem. Research by the U.S Department of Education says 101,990 students were subjected to seclusion or restraint in the 2017-18 school year, and 78 percent were students with disabilities, many of them Black. 

In 2019, ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune published an investigative report called “The Quiet Rooms,” which found seclusion as a non-emergency disciplinary tool to be rampant in Illinois schools.

“In public schools across the state, children as young as five wail for their parents, scream in anger, and beg to be let out,” the report said. “The students, most of them with disabilities, scratch the windows or tear at the padded walls. They throw their bodies against locked doors. They wet their pants. Children were sent to isolation after refusing to do classwork, for swearing, for spilling milk, for throwing Legos. School employees use isolated timeout for convenience, out of frustration, or as punishment.”

So of course a lot of disability activists are pretty hopping mad about this crass manifestation of behaviorism.

Guy Stephens, founder of the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint, writes that his son, Cooper, who is now fifteen, is on the autism spectrum and was deeply traumatized when he was isolated one day in fifth grade. Stephens says Cooper got upset and hid in the school bathroom. When he wouldn’t come out, Cooper was forcibly removed by adults and was confined alone in a room. Stephens says Cooper has been similarly disciplined at school since then for misbehavior like splashing water and squirting hand sanitizer on the floor.

“If you told me before it happened to me, I would’ve said ‘No, they don’t do that in schools,’ ” Stephens says.

But, of course, yes, they do. And that’s the way some people want to keep it.

The American Association of School Administrators, which represents school superintendents,  has long been opposed to a federal mandate completely banning restraint and seclusion in schools. In 2012, the association issued a report saying it “believes that the use of seclusion and restraint is a local and state policy decision . . . The overwhelming majority of states have adopted suitable policies to effectively address this issue.”

But after the ProPublica/Tribune report came out, legislation to ban seclusion in schools was introduced in the Illinois General Assembly. According to a state representative who was a supporter of the bill, this legislation died because of the eleventh-hour lobbying of the Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance, which includes the Illinois Association of School Administrators, an affiliate of the national superintendents group.

“Unfortunately, there’s this perception that teachers need restraint and seclusion to keep themselves safe,” Stephens says. “It’s about compliance and control. It’s about a failure of the system and the system wants to keep doing the same thing.”

The opposition to a federal ban on restraint and seclusion in schools appears to be so strong that even the Bill Namers can’t stop it. Perhaps they should call it the Trying to Keep All Students Safe from School Administrators Act.

This post was originally published on Radio Free.