TUMWATER -- Kris Hafey became alarmed in early 2018 when her then 6-year-old son, Braedon, started to show signs of post traumatic stress disorder when she made simple demands at home.
The day she told him to hand over the TV remote, Braedon bit his wrist and repeatedly slammed his fist against his forehead, Hafey said.
The day she warned him not to throw his brother's toy cars, Braedon pounded his head against his crayon-scribbled bedroom wall.
"He'd never done that before in his entire life -- even before we knew he had autism," Hafey said.
For weeks, Braedon's self-injurious behavior continued to escalate when he was at home on the family's Olympia farm. But the behavior was, in part, prompted by the boy’s time inside a closet-sized, padded room at his Tumwater elementary school. That’s where teachers confined the special education student dozens of times after his violent outbursts during his kindergarten and first-grade years.
"It made me feel kind of worried that they would lock me in there and leave me in there," said Braedon, who's now in second grade. "It made me feel like they don't want me."
Years of research show the controversial practice of isolating and restraining students is not only outdated, it doesn't work. The U.S. Department of Education warned states in 2009 -- and again in 2012 -- that "restraint and isolation should be avoided to the greatest extent possible," and used only as a last resort in safety emergencies. The agency stated there's no evidence these behavior modification tactics are effective in stopping the problem behaviors in the first place.
Medical experts have also testified that the practices can have a lasting physical and psychological impact on some students. Instead of restraining and isolating students, medical experts say educators should use positive behavior supports to address the root of the problem.
“When you see a behavior that’s occurring in the classroom or an environment, there’s almost without exception, something that’s triggering the behavior,” said Gary Strobbe, a neurologist at Seattle Childrens’ Autism Center. “There’s an ability to look at the environment and what is triggering that behavior, and an opportunity to come up with a solution.”
Despite those recommendations and a 2015 state law that sought to limit how often the Washington school officials physically restrain and isolate students, a KING 5 review of statewide data revealed many educators continue to rely on the practices in Washington's public schools.
In the 2016-2017 school year, Washington school districts reported 33,268 restraint and isolation incidents involving 6,720 students. In some cases, individual students were either restrained or isolated dozens of times.