Cornelius Fredericks and the Use of Restraint in School

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

Cornelius Fredericks was sitting at a table eating lunch at Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo, Michigan on April 29 when he was tackled by a staff-member for reportedly throwing a sandwich. For 12 minutes, a total of seven staff members restrained him forcefully on the ground. Cornelius died two days later at hospital, and his death was ruled a homicide caused by asphyxia by the Kalamazoo County Medical Examiner's office.

The story of Cornelius Fredericks is deeply tragic. A boy lost his life. Like many stories, Cornelius' illuminates structural problems in society, particularly the woefully inadequate social safety net in America. Fredericks had became a ward of the state after his mom died in her sleep at the age of 32 years old. His father was incarcerated. If there was a stronger social safety net for Cornelius' parents during their childhoods and their early adult lives, then Cornelius life could have been very different. His mother may not have died, and his father may not have gone to prison.

But this story reveals one critical flaw in the American education system: the huge numbers of law enforcement in schools in the United States leads to abuses of power with regards to physical restraint. When students are experiencing difficulty and exhibiting poor behavior, what do we do? Rather than supporting students with counselors and other forms of mental health support, we let law enforcement step in. Rather than holding them up, we pin them down.

We have to consider the way that the increased presence of law enforcement in schools affects a school climate. When the number of police in schools escalates, the climate shifts. The aesthetic of the building becomes less welcoming; the feeling that students and teachers have when they enter the building changes; a learning environment suddenly is no longer a learning environment at all.

Unfortunately, the case of Cornelius Fredericks is not isolated. There have been countless other children killed due to the over-militarization of schools and the improper use of physical restraint. Teenager Darryl Thompson died in 2006 after being restrained on the bathroom floor at a juvenile justice facility called Tryon Residential Center for Boys. The center later closed in 2011 after the Department of Justice found that the civil rights of juveniles at Tryon and other New York State juvenile centers were being violated. The students weren’t getting proper mental health treatment and staff was using force inappropriately.

A 2009 report from the Department of Justice found “hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and death related to the use of these methods on school children during the past two decades.” The chart below displays information from several other incidents. Some of the case details seem truly unbelievable.

Public schools are faced with many challenges every day, including the need to keep students safe. Due to the fact that crisis situations occur with students with behavioral needs, school officials will occasionally need to use physical restraints to keep students and staff members safe. But the current legislation that exists at the federal and state level is noticeably lacking in clarity with regards to when and how physical restraint should be used. And children are dying as a result.

In its 2009 report on physical restraint in schools, the Government Accountability Office found that prone restraints restrict an individual’s airway, cutting off their air supply and preventing them from expressing distress. Furthermore, the report showed that student distress (a student squirming or trying to yell that they cannot breathe) may be misconstrued as resistance, resulting in increased force used. Perhaps most importantly, this GAO report found no federal laws restricting the use of seclusion and restraints in public and private schools and widely divergent laws at the state level.

Since this 2009 report, change to state law has been piecemeal and painfully slow. Many states in America still do not have any law about the use of physical restraint in schools. According to a report by Jessica Butler from the Autism National Committee updated in January of 2019, only 30 states have laws providing meaningful protections against restraint and seclusion for all children. In 19 states, there are no laws against "restraints that impede breathing and threaten life." In those 19 states, it is legal for a police officer to place a knee on a students back or throat and cut off their oxygen. This is the America we live in.

A 2018 report by Andrew Ober found that many of the states that have passed laws are not enforcing them and have very few compliance mechanisms for schools and school systems. With regards to compliance and enforcement, Ober found that "legislatures are neglecting to include such provisions in the laws, resulting in a lack of legal “force” by which those laws can actually compel behavioral and cultural changes within schools and districts."

There are alternatives for schools dealing with behavioral issues. As just one example, the Center on Positive Behaviorial Interventions & Supports is devoted to producing research on this very topic. PBIS has assessments, blueprints & materials that schools can employ to better support students and to approach behavioral issues in a holistic manner. On the topic of restraints in school, the PBIS website notes the following:

Restraint and seclusion (R/S) are reactionary crisis or emergency responses. School personnel should only use R/S in extreme situations like when a student exhibits dangerous behaviors towards self or others, when a risk of serious and imminent physical harm or injury is evident. Never use R/S as a planned part of a behavior support plan, as a therapeutic intervention, or as a consequence for behavior.

Rather than throwing a kid in into disciplinary issues and reprimanding them without understanding, what if we asked ourselves "what is going on in this students' world that could be leading to this behavior?" What if schools had the proper funding and staff to ask these questions and take the time to work with each student?

Last month, the state of Michigan banned dangerous restraints in youth centers in response to the death of Cornelius Fredericks. The Legal Aid Society is now calling for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) to do the same in New York. It is time that other states follow suit.

To date, there is still no federal law regulating the use of restraint and seclusion in schools. This is astonishingly irresponsible by our lawmakers and government. It is time that we hold students up and that we support them, not pin them down.


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