Photo depicting a young Black-presenting boy sitting alone with sad feeling in a school setting.

Black, Disabled, and Foster Students Most Likely to Be Isolated or Restrained in Washington Schools

by Lauryn Bray

Coming Into the Light: An Examination of Restraint and Isolation Practices in Washington Schools is a recent report published by ACLU of Washington and Disability Rights Washington (DRW) detailing findings that school districts throughout Washington State frequently utilize restraint and isolation tactics as disciplinary practices. The report identifies Black students, students with disabilities, and students in foster care as demographics disproportionately affected by these practices. State law says that incidents of restraint are permitted only in the event of an emergency in which the student is at imminent risk of inflicting serious physical harm to themselves or to another student, while isolation is banned entirely. While, according to the report, incidents of restraint and isolation remain prevalent throughout the state, lawyer Andrea Kadlec says there is misunderstanding around what exactly constitutes restraint and isolation. 

“Many people don’t know that these things happen in education, so they don’t really have an idea of what [isolation] looks like. When we say isolation, we are really talking about isolation cells that are built in classrooms and are locked and padded to put students with disabilities in them. So people don’t know those rooms exist and are confused like, ‘Maybe this means time-out’ or ‘Maybe this means moving a student to a quiet space’ and that’s not what we’re talking about,” said Kadlec. Kadlec is a lawyer for DRW, an organization that advocates for the rights of people with disabilities, and she has been working with the organization for almost 25 years. 

Sometimes the cells are not even padded. In Dec 2020, KUOW reported that an investigation had been launched by Seattle Public Schools after Jacquelyn Flaherty, a kindergarten teacher at View Ridge Elementary, saw her principal Ed Roos and three to four other staff members lock a barefoot child outside in a fenced play court. The investigation found that the child had been locked in the enclosure on numerous occasions, sometimes all day. It was so frequent that the enclosure was dubbed “the cage” by school staff members. 

DRW was set up by Congress as part of the National Disability Rights Network and serves as the designated Protection and Advocacy agency for Washington State. Part of their jurisdiction includes having the authority to enter facilities that serve people with disabilities, look at their records, and talk to people with disabilities to ensure that they are not being abused or neglected. Thanks to this mandate, there’s an organization dedicated to preserving and protecting the rights of people with disabilities in every state and territory.

Coming into the Light was born from data retrieved from monitoring the use of restraint and isolation within schools across Washington State. In 2018, DRW began monitoring restraint and isolation, and after noticing a disparity indicating that certain demographics of students were more likely to be subjected to these practices, they reached out to the ACLU to collaborate on a report. The report includes analyses of data collected by the State, as well as data obtained from over 140 interviews with students, teachers, principals, parents, and other school personnel.

“What we have seen in the past and what the ACLU report shows is around the state, isolation and restraint both have been overused as disciplinary techniques, not as crisis intervention,” said District 1 school board director and vice president Liza Rankin. 

According to Rankin, most incidences of restraint happen to children from kindergarten to fifth grade. It can be safely assumed that restraint and isolation are being overly implemented because educators and school staff have not been provided with the necessary resources to provide trauma-informed de-escalation techniques to students with externalized and emotionally volatile behavior. 

“If you look at who we restrain, it’s the kids who are most traumatized — the students who all fall within those intersections of poverty, homelessness, foster care, students who are Black and multi-racial, and students who have disabilities,” said Kadlec. 

Educators are not trained to know how to teach children to cope with their emotions. When a child moves from an environment where traumatic events are a regular occurrence, so much so that the child feels they have no control over what happens to them on a daily basis, to another environment where their feelings are not acknowledged or considered, the child may come to believe they must disrupt because that is the only way they will ever be heard.

“Even if you’re putting aside trauma or disability, kids are still learning how to control their emotions and manage their own behavior, so it could be totally developmentally appropriate for a kid to be reacting the way they’re reacting to something. We’ve created a norm where children are disciplined for what is probably an okay response to things,” said Rankin.

Most children feel they lack control. As someone who has only been alive for a handful of years, it is impossible for a child to know how to take care of themselves. A child’s life consists of being told where to go and what to do, and being prepared for their eventual role in society. Children who are aware of this and of the autonomy they lack usually try to impose control by inflicting chaos. 

Restraint and isolation tactics are harmful and traumatic for all students. According to the ACLU of Washington, the report deduced that restraint and isolation “cause physical harm/injuries, exacerbate behavioral and mental health problems, erode trust of adult relationships and educational institutions, and traumatize students.” The ACLU also states that “former students who experienced restraint and isolation as youth attributed repeated restraint and isolation trauma to lost education, limited employment prospects, poverty, exacerbated disability, and compromised adult living.”

“We’ve had adults tell us, ‘Isolation prepared me for prison,’” explained Kadlec. “So we know that these practices are part of the school-to-prison pipeline, and they are part of biases that exist within the system, and unless we address that with training, coaching, professional development, the system is going to uphold itself, and it will self-correct to perpetuate the [discrimination].”

The conversation around isolation and restraint has been an active dialogue amongst parents, educators, advocacy organizations, and policy makers long before the ACLU and DRW published their report. This dialogue has led to the proposal of two bills in the Washington State Legislature, one in the House and one in the Senate, to address the overuse of restraint and isolation in schools. HB 1479 and SB 5559 are currently both in committee. 

Seattle Public Schools has already implemented their own procedure regarding restraint. The procedure outlines trauma-informed de-escalation strategies, behavioral support and intervention plans, emergency response protocol, guidelines for monitoring restrained students, and reporting requirements.

“This [restraint and isolation] isn’t how people want to manage kids and behavior, but educators and staff either don’t know what else to do or don’t have the adequate systems or resources in place to employ better practices for students during or before a behavioral crisis,” said Rankin. 

“Alternatives need to be provided and cultivated, supported by administrators and districts. Changes in policy and law must be paired with changes in ongoing professional development and adult education — not only in de-escalation and restorative practices, but [also] in prevention of incidents by providing supportive, inclusive classroom and school environments for our students.”

Lauryn Bray is a writer and reporter for the South Seattle Emerald. She has a degree in English with a concentration in creative writing from CUNY Hunter College. She is from Sacramento, California, and has been living in King County since June 2022.

📸 Featured Image: Photo via Ground Picture/

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