Families across the country are challenging a system they say has not only failed to educate and protect their children, but also endangered their lives.
Dozens of lawsuits have been filed against schools and districts as parents speak out against physical disciplinary methods that have injured or killed their children, ABC News reports. The families claim that an extensive abuse of harsh methods to restrain misbehaving students -- many with special needs -- has become a chronic problem in U.S. schools.
"I know I won't feel him hug me anymore, or say, 'I love you, mommy,'" Sheila Foster told ABC News of her son Corey, who died in April of cardiac arrest while being forced off a basketball court by school staff. "Someone has to be held accountable for this because my son is dead. And this shouldn't happen anymore to another child, to another family.'"
Foster has filed suit against Leake & Watts School, a residential center for at-risk youth in Yonkers, N.Y.
ABC's family interviews reflect the findings of a federal report released in March. Education Department officials found that schools physically restrained students 39,000 times during the 2009-2010 school year, and about 70 percent of cases involved students with special needs.
Schools also are reducing nonviolent intervention training, according to a survey by the American Association of School Administrators, as states lose grants and face budget cuts.
There are currently no federal standards for the use of seclusion and restraint in schools, and only 17 states have explicit laws that limit the use of such punitive measures.
Last year, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) sponsored a bill that would ban the use of seclusion and restraint in schools, barring extreme circumstances. He sought to include it in a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind federal education law, but the process was stalled in Congress. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) filed a similar bill in the House.
Both proposals faced opposition from school officials, who said that the plans were too restrictive. The legislation, they said, didn't allow enough options for school employees to handle students with special needs. They also noted more children are being funneled into the public education system from special centers.
In recent years, schools have been criticized for the use of techniques including shock therapy and isolation booths -- otherwise known as "seclusion" or "scream" rooms -- and for restraining students in bags.
School officials have said such techniques are effective in calming unruly students, and are necessary to ensure that they don't hurt themselves or others. But the children and their parents say it's anything but therapeutic.
"It makes things worse because that's how I get angrier and angrier and suddenly I feel like bursting into flames," one boy told ABC News.
Experts are calling for teacher training in public schools as parents seek legislative support to curtail seclusion and restraint.
In a July Congressional hearing, parent Debbie Jackson testified to the effectiveness of nonviolent behavior modification at her son's Pennsylvania school.
The school reformed its previously common use of physical restraint, instead using a point system that awarded good behavior. Now, Jacksons's son, Elijah, wins awards for writing and art. "I was not used to Elijah being treated as a person," Jackson told members of Congress. "[The school] held Elijah responsible for his choices."