When Discipline Starts a Fight: Pressured to Handle Disabled Children, A School Tries Restraints

Robert Tomsho:

When Eva Loeffler walked into her daughter Isabel’s classroom at Waukee Elementary School on Dec. 15, 2004, she says a male guidance counselor was trying to contain the shrieking 8-year-old by wrapping his arms around hers in a restraint hold.
Isabel, suffering from autism and other disabilities, had a history of aggressive behavior, but Mrs. Loeffler had never seen her so agitated. Her eyes were glazed and her face was red. “She was like a wild animal,” says Mrs. Loeffler, who, at the time, felt sorry for the counselor who had to deal with her daughter in such a state.
That sympathy waned as Mrs. Loeffler and her husband learned all the measures the school district used on Isabel. These included restraint holds by three adults at once and hours in a seclusion room that teachers called “Isabel’s office.” There the girl sometimes wet herself and pulled out her hair, according to documents filed in a 2006 administrative-law case the Loefflers brought against the school district.
In March, the presiding administrative-law judge ruled that the district had violated federal law by educating Isabel in overly restrictive settings and failing to adequately monitor its methods. The district has appealed. Its lawyer, Ronald Peeler, says it used “established educational principles” in addressing Isabel’s problems, and made adjustments when its discipline wasn’t working. “We are not dealing with an exact science here,” says Mr. Peeler.