Ryan Sheppard-Peery was in seventh grade the last time he was physically restrained by school staff. He got a cut lip and a bloody nose. His mother was livid. She documented his injuries in a cellphone video.
When Ryan was younger, Renada Peery-Galon said, the incidents were frequent. Once, she said, she arrived at her son’s elementary school in Santa Fe to find him face down on the floor, with an administrator sitting on top of him. Ryan, now 16, has autism. Because of his disorder, he would quickly grow anxious or frustrated in the classroom and act out.
“You’re like a loose cannon,” Ryan said in a recent interview at his family’s house in Santa Fe.
Each time he misbehaved, he said — by using profanity, throwing an eraser or pushing a pile of books off his desk — a teacher or aide would place him in what is sometimes called a “therapeutic hold,” a restraining technique aimed to prevent a child from getting injured or injuring someone else. Rather than calm him, the hold would frighten Ryan, he said, and he would fight back, escalating the situation.
Often, a teacher would seclude Ryan in a room by himself. Some people refer to such places as “scream rooms.”
These techniques, predominantly used to address behavioral issues of children with autism and other learning disabilities — the overwhelming majority boys — are widely considered by experts to be ineffective and abusive, causing long-term psychological damage to children. The federal government recommends that schools strictly limit these practices. Several states have passed laws that allow only trained school staff members to restrain a child, and only in an emergency, but New Mexico is among more than a dozen states that have no such laws.
Peery-Galon and other parents whose children have experienced trauma from these types of restraint techniques want to change that. Many of them would like to see the state ban the practices.
Now a successful student at the Santa Fe-based New Mexico Connections Academy, an online charter school, Ryan is joining parent advocates in speaking out in favor of House Bill 75, co-sponsored by James Smith, R-Sandia Park, and Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque. The bill would prohibit the use of unprescribed medications and devices to manage a child’s behavior or restrict movement, and would allow the use of physical holds and seclusion only in an emergency.
Ryan plans to testify during a committee hearing for the bill scheduled for Friday at Capitol.
Smith didn’t return several calls to comment on the bill, and Armstrong couldn’t be reached for comment.
The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that in the 2011-12 school year, more than 63,000 public school kids across the country were subjected to restraint and seclusion. According to a data analysis by the news organization ProPublica, there were 267,000 incidents that year, and many of them involved the use of aids like duct tape and straps.
New Mexico Public Education Department spokesman Robert McEntyre said in an email that the department doesn’t collect restraint data from the state’s schools. He didn’t respond to a request for comment on the department’s position on HB 75.
Katie Stone of Albuquerque, a parent volunteer with the New Mexico Autism Society, has seen similar restraint legislation fail in past years, but she’s optimistic about the chances of HB 75. “This year I feel really good about it being taken seriously,” she said.
Her daughter, who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy, was repeatedly restrained or put in a “timeout room” from kindergarten to fourth grade in Albuquerque Public Schools, Stone said. “It was really a disaster. It turned her into a raging lunatic,” she said.
Gabrielle Heisey, the mother of an 11-year-old Albuquerque boy with autism, said her son has been subjected to restraint techniques for years, and she’s at her wit’s end. Her son hasn’t been to school in three months. “He refuses to go to school,” she said. “There’s no support for him there.”
Her son is a large kid, Heisey said. Staff members were getting hurt trying to restrain him, and so was he. She filed three complaints with the Public Education Department. Her son was placed temporarily in a private program for children with learning disabilities, she said, but when he returned to public school, the problems continued.
According to data collected by Albuquerque-based Pegasus Legal Services for Children, Albuquerque Public Schools reported 1,025 incidents in which children were physically restrained in the 2015-16 school year.
Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García said her district recorded 18 incidents that year.
García was the secretary of the state Public Education Department when the federal government in 2009 required states to draft guidelines on the use of restraint and seclusion. She was involved with that process, and she supports a plan for a state law, which would give the requirements more teeth.
“I would not be in favor of restraint being eliminated,” García said. “… It should be used sparingly.”
Julie Lucero, the Santa Fe school district’s special education director, said about 50 staff members are certified to provide interventions through a training model, which focuses on de-escalation strategies — what Lucero calls “verbal judo” — to calm a student.
Restraint is only used in an emergency, she said, and it can only be used if it is included as part of a student’s individualized education program, a unique learning plan for each special education student.
Staff members who haven’t undergone the training program are prohibited from restraining students, Lucero said.
Some parents wish HB 75 would go further, prohibiting in-school and out-of-school suspensions as disciplinary measures, removing the use of holds and seclusion from a child’s individual education plan, and more clearly defining “emergency.”
“An emergency is when a child unexpectedly runs in front of a bus, and you grab them,” not a situation that arises regularly in a classroom, said Gail Stewart, an Albuquerque attorney who handles education-related cases.
Peery-Galon said the term “emergency” is subjective and could be used to justify restraining a child for throwing an eraser, like her son did. And she sees firsthand the harm a child suffers from being restrained.
Ryan’s experiences in two public elementary schools in Santa Fe, as well as a small school for special education students jointly operated by Santa Fe Public Schools and a behavioral health contractor, left him feeling hopeless, he said. He lost interest in learning.
“I was on anti-depressants, and I wasn’t even in middle school,” he said. “Can you imagine that?” He shook his head. “It’s not my fault I’m this way.”
Ryan is now achieving a 3.7 grade-point average at the New Mexico Connections Academy, he said, and is working as a volunteer at the Albuquerque BioPark Aquarium. He wants to become a marine biologist or a poet.
He’s getting involved in the legislative process, Ryan said, “so others don’t go through what I went through.”
Contact Cynthia Miller at (505) 986-3095 or [email protected].