The Johnston County school system is in the process of retraining employees in the use of adaptive chairs after a disability rights group filed a complaint describing the misuse of mechanical restraints on special needs students.
Disability Rights North Carolina filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in March, alleging that the school system had discriminated against a student at Four Oaks Elementary School by using an adaptive chair inappropriately as a mechanical restraint.
In its investigation, the OCR found that a total of 18 special needs students in Johnston County Schools, between Four Oaks Elementary and West Clayton Elementary, had been subjected to the use of mechanical restraints, including chairs, belts and in one case a helmet, many without the mention of the restraints in the students’ individualized education plans and without the knowledge of their parents.
Vicki Smith, executive director of Disability Rights North Carolina, referred to one case in which the student was strapped to an adaptive chair for the majority of the school day without the parent’s knowledge that the chair was being used for such extensive periods of time.
“To have it done for most of the school day and to do it without involving the family, it wasn’t part of the behavior management program,” Smith said. “Children have an (individualized education plan), and in there is supposed to be a behavior management plan that talks about the school’s response to certain types of behavior and the parent (expects) to sign off on it.”
In an agreement with the Office of Civil Rights, Johnston County Schools promised to train its employees in the proper usage of adaptive chairs and mechanical restraints, as well as the proper documentation in accordance with the law.
“The school system will conduct system wide training for all school-based administrators, teachers and teacher assistants on the definition of mechanical restraints, conducting meeting with parents and the documentation of mechanical restraints. Any staff involved in the use of mechanical restraints will receive training on the utilization of a specific device,” said school spokesperson Tracey Peedin Jones.
Peedin Jones emphasized that the OCR did not find the district in violation of any laws protecting the rights of disabled students, merely a need for better documentation and communication with parents.
Alternatives to restraints
But Smith said that the use of adaptive chairs to enforce behavior expectations isn’t what they were designed for. Adaptive chairs, or therapeutic chairs, are meant to be used for students who lack muscle tone and need help sitting up properly.
“It’s for therapy to help their body be situated correctly in a chair or to sit,” Smith said. “What they are not is, they are not designed to control behavior. It’s not appropriate to strap down a kid.”
Smith said there are alternatives to strapping children to adaptive chairs or using therapy belts. For example, teachers can be trained to do a therapeutic hold on a child for a brief period of time to help the child calm down.
As for students that won’t stay in their seats, Smith said teachers can employ reward systems to incentivize students to stay in their seats for longer and longer periods of time. But in some cases, teachers can evaluate whether it’s important for the student to stay in their seat if they might learn just as well by having the freedom to move around.
“As a former teacher we like kids to stand in line, keep their hands and feet to themselves, but is it necessary? Was it causing any harm? Could we find something else for the child to do that doesn’t require them sitting for extended periods of time?” Smith asked.
She said the use of the adaptive chairs as a restraint was a convenience.