Crystal Garrett



[image: the cartoon dog Snoopy,

doing the “Snoopy Dance.”]

Zachary’s laughter has been called infectious. One specialist even opined it sounded much like Charles Schultz’s famous character, Snoopy.

Those breath-taking sounds of pure joy that burst forth from deep inside his belly are a special treat these days. Zachary doesn’t laugh much anymore.

There’s a reason my six-year-old’s giggles have been replaced by meltdowns. And his story deserves to be told because he is not alone: There are many traumatized autistic children just like him—their stories must be heard, too. And if we have any compassion, we must listen to them.

This is Zachary’s story.

It was only the third day of first grade — Aug. 26, 2015 — that my child was involuntarily committed to a hospital more than two hours from my home. Zachary had not been properly diagnosed yet, but we would eventually learn he has Generalized Anxiety Disorder, ADHD and Autism.

At the time I was a reporter for a daily newspaper with beats consisting of breaking news and education, so I was preoccupied with writing an article when I received an email from Zachary’s principal.

“Something’s wrong,” she wrote.

I wouldn’t know just how much was wrong until arriving at the school in Pamlico County, a 30-minute drive from my office in New Bern, N.C. 

Once I arrived at the school, I learned from the principal that Zachary had been restrained in front of his classmates, and physically carried to the principal’s office, where I found him on the floor in the middle of a meltdown — with at least five adults staring in disbelief at him.

Zachary was curled in the fetal position due to the traumatization from being restrained. He would not speak. And glares from the adults standing above him made his anxiety even more extreme. 

The School Resource Officer was called by officials to the school, where he promptly placed Zachary in the back of a Sheriff’s vehicle without permission, then proceeded to the nearest hospital where he was involuntarily committed due to “tantrums at school,” per the hospital report.

Zachary spent five days at a children’s hospital. His little mind couldn’t comprehend why he was taken away. Due to this situation, I was forced to inform my editor of the need for me to be close by, in order to comfort my child during the hour of visitation allotted each day. 

I wish I could say Zachary’s story is one of a few. Perhaps his is more egregious in the fact he was forced by law enforcement into the back of a patrol car and had his civil rights even more violated by being involuntarily committed to a hospital due to a manifestation of his disability.

But Zachary is not alone.

In 2014, a National Public Radio Investigative report discovered 267,000 cases of restraints being used each year in U.S. schools.

After his hospitalization, things changed at school for Zachary. While his friends enjoyed the freedom of the monkey bars, he spent recess alone in the “Choice” room. He wasn’t even afforded the luxury of lunch with friends. And he was restrained on many more occasions before I finally had enough and, on the advice of his doctor, decided to quit my job to homeschool him.

When asked recently if he would return to the school if teachers were properly trained and didn’t restrain him, he looked at me and said, “Mommy, you would do that to me?” I simply replied, “No,” while secretly wiping away tears.

Things don’t have to be this way. I believe there needs to be a nationwide ban on all restraint and seclusion in schools. Many who opposed this view believe such a ban is an unrealistic goal, and that allowing pseudo-behavioral techniques “in extreme situations” is necessary to keep a child safe from himself, and to protect the other students in the classroom.

The problem is there is no universal definition of “extreme.” Was Zach’s behavior extreme?  No. Not to me, or to any teacher or administrator properly trained in working with children with disabilities. But to his teachers, who were not sufficiently trained in this area, it was extreme behavior — and their reaction has caused extreme damage to my child.

We know a restraint and seclusion free environment is realistic. Virginia-based Grafton Integrated Health Network, an organization that works with children and adults with autism and co-occurring psychiatric diagnoses, went restraint and seclusion free ten years ago. Since then, their client and staff injury rate has dramatically gone down, while employee satisfaction has increased. They are now teaching their system, Ukeru, to others across the country, in order to create a trauma-informed environment for addressing aggressive behavior.

Perhaps if more educational bodies knew about this approach, my 60-pound six-year-old wouldn’t have ever been placed in the back of the patrol car that hot summer day. We also wouldn’t have to travel the 30-mile stretch of highway for trauma-based therapy each week.

Due to the enduring trauma from that day, and others in which Zachary was placed in holds and held in seclusion from his peers, I no longer write as a journalist. I write for Zachary with the hopes there will be more days filled with laughter.