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Teaching to Discipline, Disciplining to Fail

August 30, 2015

Nayram Gasu

Educational Opportunities Project Undergraduate Intern

Children’s safety has to be our number one concern before we begin to think about educating them…” – U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan,

In 1975, the United States passed the first federal bill to protect the educational rights of students with disabilities through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The law was to set regulations to ensure that students with disabilities are not seen as the “other” in education. They were to be educated with their abled peers and be in an environment of equality and less restriction.

Classrooms are usually the first places where we experience different types of multiplicity, whether it is by race, ethnicity, religion, or ability. Since classrooms hold this conglomeration of diversity, teachers are looked upon to be trained on how to educate a wide array of students. However, this is not the case as “their teaching license often limits them to work in an elementary or secondary school, as a bilingual specialist, a special education teacher, or a general education teacher”.  RAND Corporation also has found that “[a]lthough most teachers are highly qualified under NCLB [No Child Left Behind] …a higher percentage of teachers who were not highly qualified under NCLB teach special education and LEP [Limited English Proficient] classes. Among special education teachers, only 39 percent of those who teach in elementary schools, 61 percent of those who teach in middle schools, and 53 percent of those who teach in high schools reported themselves as being highly qualified.”

But teacher preparation goes beyond just knowing how to educate children. It also includes how to handle their adolescent hormones and how to discipline them.  Teaching can be seen as a thankless job, because teachers get paid meager salaries for tending and shaping the future of the nation. However, that does not excuse horrendous acts of violence done by teachers against students.

Imagine yourself in a place where almost no one understands you. You can’t seem to communicate with anyone, and you feel invisible most of the time. You are unheard, you are unseen. You don’t understand what is happening around you, and you’re trying to ask for help, but, again, no one seems to understand you, or what you want. It’s stressing you out to get your point across, and everyone looks at you with hints of apathy, dismay and disgust. You’re trying your best here, but wait, no! Everyone’s got the wrong message, and thanks to zero tolerance policies, you’re being punished. There’s so much happening around you so quickly that you don’t understand; your heart pounds faster, your mind is racing, and there’s still no one grasping what you’re trying to communicate. You act as a result of escalated fear, and suddenly you’re being pinned down, tied up, and thrown into a tiny cement or padded room for hours with no way out.


Example of a seclusion room in Connecticut schools provided by the Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities.

Perhaps one of the most abysmal acts committed predominantly to students with disabilities, is the use of mechanical or physical restraint against them. According to the Civil Rights Data Collection, mechanical restraint is defined by the use of any device to restrict a student’s freedom of movement. Physical restraint is a personal restriction that immobilizes or reduces the ability of a student to move his or her torso, arms, legs, or head freely.  While students with disabilities make up about 12 percent of public school students, they make up 75 percent of victims of physical restraint.

graph disdc


In 2015, the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate reported more than 1,300 incidents of injury during restraint or seclusion, with more than two dozen labeled serious injuries.  As teachers are not properly trained to work with students’ issues communicating their needs, odd behavior is often mistaken for tantrums, which usually ends up in discipline for the student. As students with disabilities are disproportionately targeted for restraints and seclusion, they end up not being in class, and thus are most vulnerable to failing or dropping out of school.

Video: Deadly Discipline? Students Hurt, Dying After Being Restrained


In terms of current developments, as of April 15th, the Senate Committee for Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), passed Senator Chris Murphy’s (D-Conn.) amendment to require states to establish policies to regulate, and more importantly, prevent, the unnecessary use of seclusion and restraint in schools. It is our greatest hope that this amendment establishes better relationships between educators and students with disabilities.

To be a teacher is an enormous task, almost unfathomable for us who are not. Every day I am severely grateful to the teachers I have had. I’ve been in schools where the class size was 15, and I’ve been in schools where the class size was 50, and in all cases, teachers are the most influential in how we see ourselves, and how we see each other. For children from kindergarten to the 12th grade to see their classmate be man-handled and separated for hours, or a whole day, sends the message that students with disabilities are “other;” that they deserve to be physically detained because of the way they are. Restraining and secluding students illustrates that these students do not deserve respect or tolerance, simply because they require extra care. It is time we think critically about alternatives to these discriminatory practices.

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