Heidi Stuber said she knew something wasn't right with her son Isaac soon after he started third grade.
Every time Stuber attempted to hug Isaac, who was 9 at the time, the once-affectionate child pulled away and screamed.
"It was very hard as a parent to see that my son had been so mistreated that he couldn't connect with the people who loved him in normal ways," Stuber said.
Isaac, who has autism, stopped completing classroom assignments. He refused to go to sleep on Sundays because he was afraid to start a new week at school. He slept on Stuber's bedroom floor for about two years because he couldn't get through the night without having a nightmare.
Stuber said her son’s actions stemmed from his experience at B.F. Day Elementary School in Seattle. School records show B.F. Day educators physically restrained Isaac repeatedly in 2014 as a means to control his behavior.
"It completely derailed his school career," Stuber said. “School ruined Isaac’s life.”
Isaac refused to enter any school building for two school years after his experience at B.F. Day. A University of Washington psychologist said the repeated physical interventions led Isaac to suffer from intense anxiety and trauma. Now, four years later, the 13-year-old only attends school part time because he says he’s still haunted by memories of being restrained.
“I try to block those memories out,” Isaac said, adding that he didn’t want to talk about what happened to him in third grade.
Under a 2015 state law, educators are allowed to restrain and isolate students only when there’s an imminent likelihood of serious harm.
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. No state agency tracks whether the state’s local schools are using it appropriately.
“It’s really easy for people who don’t understand how complex these cases are to dismiss these kids and say they’re bad kids or they did something to deserve it,” Stuber said. “They didn’t.”
School officials and parents don’t always agree on whether physical restraint and isolation is justified in individual cases. But regardless of the reason why educators use isolation and restraint, the research is clear: there’s no educational value to the practices, and for some kids, the intervention techniques cause lasting trauma.
“There’s no question in any of the professional fields that the use of restraint and isolation is damaging to children,” said Jeannette Cohen, a long-time special education attorney who represented the Stuber family in their legal case against Seattle Public Schools. “I think they feel violated when they’re grabbed. I think they feel diminished as people. I think they feel like their issues are not taken seriously. I think they feel blamed that the behavior is someone how intentional and their fault, and I think that’s a blame that they carry with them.”
A KING 5 investigation found multiple examples in districts across the state where students with disabilities, like Isaac, experienced significant psychological and educational setbacks after they were repeatedly restrained or isolated in schools.
Braedon Hafey, a 7-year-old Tumwater student with autism, began to injure himself at home and at school after teachers locked him in a closet-sized room dozens of times to control his behavior. His mom Kris Hafey says he started pounding his head against the wall and biting himself whenever she told him to complete a simple task.
Tumwater teachers isolated the student at least 56 times during the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years, according to a KING 5 analysis of Braedon’s isolation reports. Staff sent him to the isolation room six times in one day in January 2018. In response to his self-injurious behavior, Braedon’s mom temporary pulled him out of school.
River Willison, an 11-year-old student with autism, refused to attend school full-time for about three years because the use of isolation and restraint in the Bellingham School District psychologically traumatized him.
During a six-day period in second grade, River was either isolated or restrained seven times. In one incident, school officials documented that the intervention lasted three-and-a-half hours.
River became so afraid of school that he threatened to kill himself on the first day of third grade. His mother Erin Willison said he overheard her planning his upcoming curriculum with a school official on the phone. He ripped the doors off the hinges, punched holes in the walls, and then he ran outside and threatened to jump in front of a car.
He was subsequently hospitalized three times, including two, 6-week stints at a behavioral health outpatient treatment center in Florida.
Local special education experts say teachers often default to using restraint and isolation as a way to control behavior that should instead be addressed with different techniques.
Cohen, the special education attorney, said she routinely hears educators classify student behavior as dangerous when it’s not.
“I think it’s perception,” Cohen said. “I think they get caught up in a situation where they don’t know how to respond, and they do the best they can.”
She and other special education experts blame the problem on a lack of training and a special education system that’s underfunded statewide by millions of dollars. They say the state legislature has never set aside enough money to fully fund the specialized professional development and resources teachers need to address problematic behaviors in alternative ways, such as using a method called positive behavior support.
It’s an issue that has left many educators frustrated, with their hands tied and without options to adequately meet the individual needs of students with disabilities, as federal law requires.