Physical Abuse

Physical abuse occurs when another person intentionally injures or inflicts pain on another person. People with disabilities who have been physically abused report being hit, kicked, punched and tripped. Children and adults with disabilities have a unique risk of being restrained in dangerous, often deadly, ways.

Despite federal and state laws that prohibit or severely limit the practice, teachers, caregivers and others in a position of power use restraints as a way of controlling behavior. The U.S. Department of Education reports that nearly 40,000 students were physically restrained in the nation’s schools during the 2009-2010 school year. Of those, approximately 70% of the students had disabilities, even though students with disabilities represent just 12% of the entire student population.

Students with disabilities were twice as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions. In many cases, students were victims of “prone restraints,” a particularly dangerous form of restraint that has resulted in the deaths of dozens of students in recent years. Prone restraints involve holding an individual’s hands and feet while he or she is face down. In many, several adults team up to subdue a child. In 2012 alone, prone restraints were used nearly 2,000 times in Minnesota schools.

From Disability Rights New York, October 30, 2017

Abuse and Neglect of New York State Residents at Woods Services in Pennsylvania 

In 2016, Disability Rights New York (DRNY) began an investigation of Woods Services in Langhorne, Pennsylvania in response to multiple allegations of abuse and neglect. More than 100 New York residents are housed at this private facility, including nine individuals since the 1950s. More than 650 individuals with developmental disabilities, from 31 states and the District of Columbia, reside on this institutional campus.

Woods Services has a history of abuse and neglect. A culture of abuse and neglect exists. The findings in this 2017 Report confirm that the same violations continue – “a longstanding, pervasive, and systemic issue.” Regardless of repeated corrective action plans, Woods Services has been unable to implement recommendations

In person and phone interviews were conducted with parents and family members, and meetings were held with staff and administrators. All Woods Services records and all State oversight records for allegations of abuse and neglect were reviewed. Findings included repeated use of physical restraints, retaliation(intimidation and physical assaults) against residents and family members who complained, failure to investigate and report serious incidents, failure to develop and implement appropriate behavioral interventions, and operating unsanitary facilities. Woods also operates a segregated employment program, pays subminimum wages, and discriminates against workers on the basis of their disabilities.

DRNY refers to Woods Services as a “troubled agency” where negligence has led to the deaths of two New York residents, and its failure to correct “numerous and systemic deficiencies.”

From The Gazette, June 7, 2017

Iowa City Schools Must Fix Use of Seclusion, State Says

In a 35 page report issued last week, the Iowa Department of Education responded to a complaint filed on December 21, 2016 regarding the broad use of seclusion rooms and without the parents’ knowledge. The complaint also noted that “black students were disproportionately put into Iowa City seclusion rooms” during the 2013-14 school year.

Thomas Mayes, a state Education Department complaint officer, reviewed 455 seclusion reports involving 64 Iowa City students and visited two Iowa City school with seclusion rooms. The district has 90 days to review its policies, practices and procedures relating to restraint and seclusion with changes made within 180 days.

From the Florida Today, March 14, 2017

Teacher Fired for Biting Special Needs Student

The Brevard County School Board voted to fire Karen Williams in December 2015 after biting a student. She was arrested by the Palm Bay Police Department and charged with child abuse, a felony in the state of Florida.

From the Knoxville News Sentinel, February 7, 2017

Couple Arrested After Autistic Girl Found in Wooden Cage

An anonymous tip brought deputies to a Jonesborough home. In no time at all, they discovered a wooden cage, with a padlock on the door, dog feces and urine on the tile floor, and a 10 year old child inside. The homeowners were immediately arrested and the four children in the home placed in foster care.

East Tennessee couple arrested after autistic girl found in wooden cage

From ShadowProof, January 31, 2017

Iowa Department of Education Faces Complaint Over Seclusion Rooms for Special Needs Students

Seclusion rooms built of plywood, six feet by six feet, with recycled tires covered with horse stall mats on the floor, are used as “time out” rooms at 14 elementary schools, three junior high schools, and three high schools in the Iowa City Community School District. Parents are not told about the seclusion rooms, and journalists are prevented from seeing them. The School District classifies them as “confidential spaces.” A private attorney filed a complaint with the Iowa Department of Education in December 2016; the Department is investigating.

From WJHL Television, January 27, 2017, in Greenville, Tennessee

Former GVDC Employee Pleads Guilty in Abuse Case

A former employee of the Green Valley Developmental Center pled guilty to a charge of attempted aggravated assault against a resident at the Center, slapping her in the face with a shoe. A criminal investigation never resulted in charges but the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities conducted its own investigation and substantiated the allegation, resulting in two years on probation and a lifetime on the abuse registry.

From ProPublica, June 24, 2016

Florida Cracks Down on Troubled For Profit Facility

Florida officials are finally moving to relocate residents from the Carlton Palms Educational Center to smaller community homes.

Following the results of a ProPublica investigation in December 2015, two more complaints of maltreatment were substantiated and four more were still under investigation. The Florida Department of Children and Families reached agreement with AdvoServ including stepped up monitoring. An independent group will develop transition plans for each resident. It’s possible that AdvoServ may attempt to run some of the new community homes

From ProPublica, December 11, 2015 (co-published with The New Republic)

What Happened to Adam?

Adam was diagnosed with autism at age two. When he was 16, he began living at the Carlton Palms Educational Center after the Tampa area schools acknowledged it was failing to teach him. Over a seven year time period, more than $ 1 million had been paid for his tuition and care.

An unexpected visit by Adam’s parents, who had recently clashed with the Center’s administration about medication issues, found their son in a nearly unrecognizable state – disheveled and expressionless. An unexplained wound on his arm was casually dismissed as incorrectly applied restraints. Later it was discovered that restraints had been used hundreds of times for questionable and unjustifiable reasons. AdvoServ continued to “bully regulators and evade accountability.”In less than five years, residents at the Carlton Palms campus had ben place in mechanical restraints 28,000 times. This story covers Adam’s life, before, during, and after his seven “tortured” years at Carlton Palms. Adam’s mom sued Carlton Palms. Trail was expected to take place in 2016.

From ProPublica, December 10, 2015 (co-published with The New Republic)


AdvoServ’s aggressive use of mechanical restraints have resulted in broken bones, knocked out teeth and cuts. This for profit company, established in 1969 as the Au Clair School in Bear, Delaware for children with severe autism, has been the subject of several state investigations over the decades, triggered at least in part by the death of a young student in 1997.

The Au Clair School changed its name in 1997 to AdvoServ and then began expanding in Delaware and Florida. Shortly after, The New York Times published a story that revealed the deplorable conditions in which children were living at a Delaware “school.”

Time and time again, AdvoServ officials were able to fend off any efforts to legislatively limit the use of restraints in the name of “treatment.” Significant contributions to political campaigns and political action committees were successful in preventing restraint bills from making headway. The greatest threat to AdvoServ came in 2013 following the death of a student at the Carlton Palms campus. One state report concluded “wrongful death due to medical neglect is probable.” Ultimately, there were no fines or sanctions levied and admissions were allowed to continue.

From the Topeka Capitol-Journal, December 20, 2012

Topeka Woman is City’s 17th Homicide Victim of Year

Mother: Homicide victim was disabled, trusting

Oma Davis enjoyed a light-hearted conversation with her daughter on Wednesday afternoon as the pair talked about plans for the upcoming holidays.

“She was looking forward to baking for Christmas,” said Davis, 65, of Topeka. “She loved to bake cookies, pies, desserts.”

A few hours later, on Wednesday night, Davis received the shocking news that her daughter, Oma “Shannon” Bennett, 43, who was disabled, had been stabbed to death in her apartment near S.E. 21st and Adams. Bennett’s death constituted the city’s 17th homicide of the year.

Troy Allen Robinson, 23, of Topeka, was arrested and booked into the Shawnee County Jail on suspicion of first-degree murder. Police said Robinson had told his mother that he had stabbed a woman at the apartment complex. Robinson’s mother then called police, who found Bennett’s body in her apartment at 2130 S.E. Pioneer Way.

Davis said her daughter “trusted everyone” and would feed visitors like royalty. As for Robinson, she said: “I’d never heard of him before. No, never heard of him.” Davis said Bennett graduated from Highland Park High School and was living on Social Security disability. She said Bennett had a daughter who is 15 years old. Bennett wasn’t able to raise her daughter, so Davis said she has taken on that task ever since the granddaughter’s birth.

“Shannon was mentally handicapped,” her mother said. “Physically and mentally, but mostly mentally. She just loved everybody. She trusted everybody. She was harmless. She never had a bad word to say to anybody or about anybody. But she was lonesome. It’s too bad somebody would take advantage of a mentally handicapped person like that.”]

From the Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 25, 2012

Witness: Disabled Workers Physically Abused

Social worker alleges at Henry’s trial that ‘caretakers’ ritually assaulted the men

At least 11 of the mentally disabled employees of Henry’s Turkey Service were subjected to physical abuse, mostly at the hands of two of the “caretakers” who ran the Atalissa bunkhouse where the men were housed, a state social worker testified Wednesday.

“Many of the men talked of different forms of punishment,” Iowa Department of Human Services social worker Natalie Neel-McLaughlin testified. “Some of the men would have to repeatedly walk around a pole in the garage area while they were hit or kicked and screamed at.”

A former bunkhouse caretaker reported that one of the men who was forced to walk around the pole while being assaulted wore leg braces and was physically disabled, Neel-McLaughlin said. Neel-McLaughlin testified that she interviewed the 21 men who were still living at the bunkhouse when it was closed by the state in February 2009. She described the punishment ritual in the garage as involving both physical assaults and verbal taunts, with the men being cursed and, in some cases, subjected to racial epithets or called a “retard.”

From The New York Times, June 5, 2011

Abused and Used: A Disabled Boy’s Death, and a System in Disarray

New York State and the federal government provided $1.4 million annually per person to care for Jonathan and the other residents of the Oswald D. Heck Developmental Center, a warren of low-rise concrete and brick buildings near Albany.

Yet on a February afternoon in 2007, Jonathan, a skinny, autistic 13-year-old, was asphyxiated, slowly crushed to death in the back seat of a van by a state employee who had worked nearly 200 hours without a day off over 15 days. The employee, a ninth-grade dropout with a criminal conviction for selling marijuana, had been on duty during at least one previous episode of alleged abuse involving Jonathan.

“I could be a good king or a bad king,” he told the dying boy beneath him, according to court documents.

In the front seat of the van, the driver, another state worker at O. D. Heck, watched through the rear-view mirror but said little. He had been fired from four different private providers of services to the developmentally disabled before the state hired him to care for the same vulnerable population.

From National Public Radio, May 19, 2009

Report: Discipline Methods Endanger Disabled Kids

A large number of schools use potentially dangerous methods to discipline children, particularly those with disabilities in special education classes, a report from Congress’ investigative arm finds.

In some cases, the Government Accountability Office report notes, children have died or been injured when they have been tied, taped, handcuffed or pinned down by adults or locked in secluded rooms, often to be left for hours at a time. The report looking at restraint and seclusion in schools will be released Tuesday at a hearing by the House Committee on Education and Labor. Committee Chairman George Miller, who asked for the GAO report, says it begins to give lawmakers a sense of the frequent use of those methods.

Only five states require schools to report when restraint and seclusion are used. The congressional investigatory group looked at records in two of them — Texas and California — and found that in the 2007-08 school year alone, there were more than 33,000 cases.

Many of the children have cognitive disabilities, mental health issues, autism, attention deficit disorder and other disabilities.

“This hearing,” Miller says, “will show us is that, in fact, every year in schools in the United States, hundreds and hundreds of children are the victims of abuse, and in some cases I would say almost torture.” Some deaths have occurred when large adults pinned down agitated children to try to calm them but, instead, accidentally suffocated them. One 7-year old girl died that way in Wisconsin. She was restrained because she was fidgeting and blowing bubbles in her milk.

In another case, a 13-year-old boy left alone in a seclusion room hanged himself and died. “I was also stunned by how young some of these children were: 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 years old — some of whom had died,” says Miller, a California Democrat. “And really, this is a very sad, a very tragic report.”

From the Star Tribune, April 28, 2013

Disabled Students Face Dangerous Discipline in Minnesota

A 10-year-old autistic boy was pinned to the floor and held facedown for 57 minutes by three staff members at his school after he threw a tantrum while working on a puzzle in his special education classroom.

Another boy with autism who caused disruptions in class was put in physical holds that left him struggling to breathe. A 14-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who “acted out” in class severed her finger after an aide barricaded her alone in a room at her school.

It happens thousands of times a year in Minnesota’s classrooms: Disabled students get punished for disruptive outbursts with severe forms of discipline — from forceful physical restraint to extended solitary confinement — that are either banned or more restricted in other states. State reports examined by the Star Tribune show that such discipline occurred nearly 22,000 times on more than 2,500 special education students last year.

Records from recent years also show that school staff are using dangerous physical holds and lengthy isolation often in response to minor episodes by disabled students. One 9-year-old was physically restrained 189 times over the first half of a school year. Others have been refused water or kept alone in rooms until they wet their pants.

Some staff members are putting special education students in intense facedown holds that last 15 minutes or more, records also show — long enough to risk injury or even accidental death. Valarie Jones was horrified by her teenage son’s bruised, swollen face after he was restrained by school staff in response to a fight he had with another special education student.

“I thought the other boy had beaten him up, but it wasn’t the other boy, it was the teacher who threw him down,” said Jones, whose son has several disabilities. “To me, it was worse than you would treat an animal.”

With rising numbers of special education students in Minnesota’s schools, many of whom suffer from mental or behavioral disorders, classroom discipline has become the focus of urgent debate among educators — and a source of fear and outrage among parents of disabled children.

From Texas Tech Law Review, 48 Tex. Tech L. Rev.459, Winter 2016

Pennies an Hour:  Was This Really the Intent Behind § 14 (c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act?  A Note Calling for a System Change to an Otherwise Broken System.

An historical overview of § 14 (c) under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the original intent that was never realized, and how this provision has legitimized the segregation of and perpetuated stereotypes about individuals with disabilities in employment. The system is broken and reform is long overdue.

PDF of Article

From MassLive, February 16, 2016

Investigation Into Peck School Finds ‘Systemic Failure’ Led to Abuse of Holyoke Students

An investigation into Massachusetts’ Peck School revealed that a systemic failure led to students with disabilities being abused. Students were reportedly locked in unlit closets, thrown to the floor, and slapped by teachers. (Added 4-1-16)

From ProPublica, December 10, 2015


Residents of Florida’s Carlton Palms have been subjected to numerous reports of abuse. Despite the state barring Carlton Palms from accepting new residents for a year, the state later backed down and began sending new residents. The privately run residential program was intended to be a solution to the problematic institutions it replaced, but has had its own troubled history.

From The Columbus Dispatch, September 6, 2015

Developmentally Disabled Adults Often Abused and Ignored

According to a four-month investigation by the Columbus Dispatch, there is a system in Ohio in which victims of abuse often do not get help and abusers are not punished. Further, an investigation by the Disability and Abuse Project revealed 7 in 10 people with a developmental disability are victims of abuse.

From McClatchy DC, January 16, 2016

Mississippi Investigating Mistreatment Allegation in Biloxi Schools

Biloxi schools of Mississippi are under investigation following abuse allegations that students with disabilities had been neglected and restrained.

From MassLive, March 17, 2016

State Begins Revocation of Eagleton School’s License in Great Barrington Following Assault of Disabled Students Charges

Massachusetts state agencies are revoking the Eagleton School’s license after several employees were charged with assaulting students with disabilities.

From MassLive, April 7, 2016

Report Finds Student Suffered Ruptured Ear Drum, 18 Bruises in Abuse at Milford School for Disabled

A report by the Disability Law Center found instances of abuse and neglect by staff members at the Massachusetts’s school, the Evergreen Center. The report stated a student was subjected to substantial blunt force to the face and head by a Center staff member. Doctors at the hospital diagnosed the student with a ruptured eardrum, noted a total of 18 bruises on the student’s body, and were concerned about a possible skull fracture. (Added 4-22-16)

From Lexington Herald-Leader, April 8, 2016

No Charge to be Filed Against Teacher Who Dragged Student in Hall

A teacher at a Kentucky elementary school will not face charges after she dragged a student through a hallway. The school superintendent terminated the teacher, stating “When I view that video, I clearly see a victim. I believe other members of our community would agree that there should be no tolerance for treating any child in such an inhumane manner, much less a six-year-old with special needs.” The Fayette County Attorney, however, didn’t consider this a crime and decided against prosecuting the teacher. (Added 4-22-16)

From WJHL, March 24, 2016

State Disciplined Former GVDC Employee a Year Before Alleged Abuse

A former worker at a Tennessee developmental center was indicted by a grand jury for abusing a dependent adult in 2014 by slapping her in the face with a shoe. The worker resigned after the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities conducted an internal investigation and substantiated abuse. The investigation files also revealed the worker had been disciplined previously; this was not a first time incident. (Added 4-22-16)

From Utah Law Review, March 18, 2016

Handcuffing a Third Grader? Interactions Between School Resource Officers and Students with Disabilities.

Elizabeth Shaver of the University of Akron School of Law and Janet Decker of Indiana University discuss the issues involved when School Resource Officers intervene when students with disabilities engage in undesired behaviors. The authors provide a background on the role of SROs and give recommendations to address these issues, including a need for comprehensive training for SROs, a set scope on a SRO’s duties and an adherence to those duties. (Added 5-12-16)

From Courier-Journal, May 11, 2016

Audit: “Code of Silence” in JCPS on Restraint

An auditing firm revealed that the Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky has a culture of a “code of silence” when it comes to reporting the use of seclusion and restraint on students. The firm’s report noted that assistant superintendents discouraged teachers from reporting incidents of seclusions and restraints to maintain a positive image. Last year the school district secluded or restrained over 4,000 students, but only 200 of those incidents were appropriately reported to the state. (Added 5-12-16)

From Times Union, May 12, 2016

Justice Center Gets Conviction of Former Sunmount Employee

A former Office for People with Developmental Disabilities employee was convicted on a misdemeanor for giving police false information in an attempt to cover up an assault on a resident at the facility. The conviction follows an incident that occurred last year in the New York facility. (Added 6-2-16)

From USA Today, May 16, 2016

Past Time to Ban Skin Shocks to Disabled

The Judge Rotenberg Center, a residential school in Boston for children and adults with disabilities, uses a dangerous form of punishment involving shocking students on their arms, legs or torso. It is the only program in the country to use electronic shock as a form of behavior modification. The FDA has proposed regulations which would make the shocking devices illegal, after finding the electric shock punishments creates “an unreasonable and substantial risk” of harmful effects upon the residents.

From INFORUM, May 10, 2016

Restraining, Secluding Misbehaving Students Still a Problem in ND Schools

North Dakota is one of five states with no protections in place for students with disabilities in the public school system regarding the use of restraints and seclusion.  The others are New Jersey, Mississippi, Idaho and South Dakota. According to data from the United States Department of Education, 1,249 cases of restraint and seclusion were reported in North Dakota from 2009 to 2011, and about 90 percent of those cases involved students with disabilities. A recent survey showed 58 percent of districts have a policy, 26 percent don’t, and 17 are in the process of adopting one.

Legislators are inclined to leave a policy and guidelines in the hands of local school districts rather than adopt a statewide policy. However, child protection advocates have reported a statewide approach would be better. A task force is currently studying the issue and will report their findings and recommendations in the 2017 legislative session.

From Ed Source, June 9, 2016

Discipline in Private Special Education Schools Under Investigation by California Attorney General

Kamala Harris, California Attorney General, issued at least one subpoena for documents about “the use of restraints, seclusion, or punishment at Tobinworld.”  Tobinworld is a nonprofit organization based in Glendale. This is believed to be the first time that private schools that present themselves to school districts as having expertise in addressing the behavior of students with emotional disorders or developmental disabilities have come under state or federal scrutiny.

From Courier-Journal, June 14, 2016

JCPS Moving Forward to Correct Restraint, Seclusion Siscrepancies

After previous reports that the Jefferson County Public School district had underreported cases of restraints and seclusions to the state, the County Board of Education has now accepted a final report from an auditor with recommendations to correct reporting discrepancies. The auditor noted it was clear that the district wanted to properly report these incidents but the use of multiple computer systems resulted in large part to the discrepancies. School board members appreciated efforts to correct the underreporting but also how to assure that employees were adequately trained and students were safe.

From EdSource, June 9, 2016

Discipline in Private Special Education Schools Under Investigation by California Attorney General

California Attorney General has launched an investigation into the use of restraints and isolation, on students with disabilities, who attend publicly funded private schools. A subpoena has been issued, seeking documents relating to the school’s use of restraint and seclusion. According to date from the California Department of Education, private special education schools report the highest number of seclusion and restraint incidents.

From The Hour, May 21, 2016

School Official: Lack of Oversight at Center of Abuse Allegations

Norwalk Public Schools in Connecticut has no policy or positon to ensure that special education students are treated well or humanely. No system or process has ever been in place to monitor how students in private schools are doing.  Eight years of study after study of the school district’s special education system resulted in no further review. At a May school board meeting, three mothers with children at High Road School broke the silence – their children were coming home with scratches and bruises; one child had trouble breathing for months; one child began screaming whenever she saw the school bus, “That’s a bad school, they hurt kids. I don’t want to go there.”

Investigators from the Special Victims Unit are now looking into the allegations.  State agencies, non-profit child protective agencies, and law enforcement are now involved.

Additional Resources

The Use of Seclusion and Restraint in Public Schools: The Legal Issues, Congressional Research Service (2010)

Human Services Restraint: Its Past and Future, David Ferleger, American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (2008)

Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports

What Parents Should Know About the Use of Restraints Seclusion, New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities

Seclusion and Restraints: Selected Cases of Death and Abuse at Public and Private Schools and Treatment Centers, United States Government Accountability Office (2009)

Restraint and Seclusion Resource Document, U.S. Department of Education (2012)

ABC NEWS Investigation: Death at School Video (Nov. 2012)

Impairing Education: Corporal Punishment of Students with Disabilities in US Public Schools, ACLU/Human Rights Watch (2009)

Restraint and Seclusion of Children in Minnesota Public Schools, Minnesota Disability Law Center & Minnesota’s Protection and Advocacy Agency (Feb. 2010)

When Does Physical Restraint Become Abuse?, U.S. News & World Report (2009)