This story was produced by the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School.
When the public school in Norwalk, Connecticut, wanted to send Barbara Profit’s children to a private school for kids with disabilities, the mother warily agreed. She had hoped to keep them in public school, but knew her two kids, ages 9 and 5, needed extra support.
Her son Tyllis has autism, while her youngest child Shirley has multiple disabilities, including schizophrenia. Both had aggressive outbursts in school, sometimes including hitting and kicking. In 2011, the district told her it didn’t have the resources to meet the kids’ needs, so it would pay to put them in a private school instead.
But the longer her kids spent at the new program, called High Road, the more alarmed Profit felt. Several times a month, one or both of her children would be physically restrained by school staff after an aggressive outburst, or locked in a closet-sized seclusion room. It happened most often to Shirley. In the spring of 2015, the 9-year-old girl was put into an isolation room 15 times in a single month. During the same time period, staff physically restrained Shirley six times, holding her on the ground or with her arms behind her back. “It’s just devastating to see all these restraints,” said Profit.
Shirley and Tyllis’ situation is emblematic of a disturbing trend across the country. When children with disabilities can’t get the education they need in their school district, federal law requires the school to offer them “private placement” – essentially, putting them in private school at taxpayers’ expense. Exactly how many children receive this kind of treatment, however, is unknown. Most states don’t require private schools to report any information about restraint and seclusion – even if they get millions of dollars each year from the public school district.
“I don’t think anybody pays much attention to what these schools are doing, and they’re spending a lot of public money doing it,” said Andrew Feinstein, a special-education attorney in Mystic, Connecticut.
There’s a good reason to start paying attention.
The death of George Floyd after a police restraint this spring sparked massive civil rights protests and brought on a renewed attention to racial disparities across the country, including in schools. Yet the nation’s Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education does not keep any data on how often private schools restrain students with disabilities. This lack of information makes it nearly impossible to track what is happening to those students, especially students of color. A Teacher Project analysis found that in Connecticut, one of the few states that does track this data, Black and Hispanic students in private special education schools are twice as likely to be restrained as White students.