Alberta Education failing to protect children with disabilities

February 15, 2019

Guidelines not enough for seclusion and restraints in schools

Inclusion Alberta shared startling and disturbing results from its survey conducted in the fall of 2018 on the use of seclusion and physical restraints in Alberta schools. Representatives of Inclusion Alberta and Autism Edmonton, plus parents on the Education Minister’s working group, shared their mutual grave concerns related to the survey results and the ongoing use of these practices in schools. Other parents whose children were secluded or restrained were also in attendance.

You can see the complete summary of the survey online, or download a PDF of the report (content warning: abuse, trauma, isolation)

The results of this survey paint a picture of shame and abuse with respect to the ungoverned use of seclusion and restraint in too many Alberta classrooms, schools and school districts. While some school districts have publicly stated these practices are “relics of the past”, that they no longer sanction or use them, this is clearly not true across the province. Alberta Education’s guidelines are an abject failure in ensuring the safety and well-being of students with disabilities and this survey provides telling evidence that guidelines alone will never suffice in ensuring ethical and positive practices, keeping children safe or giving parents peace of mind. (content warning: abuse, trauma, isolation)

No parent should have to continue to live in fear, every day their child is in school, that they might be isolated, locked up, restrained or otherwise punished because they happen to have a disability. Nor should any parent ever again have to feel coerced into agreeing to their child’s seclusion or restraint in order to have their child educated, which is supposed to be a legal and human right in Alberta. It is time for Alberta Education to accept responsibility, be accountable and stand and act on behalf of every child’s rights and well-being; not just some.

Following the initial public exposure by Inclusion Alberta of how hundreds of students with disabilities were being locked in seclusion rooms and physically restrained, Education Minister David Eggen stated, “I will do everything I can to ensure students learn in safe and caring classrooms.”

Subsequently, Minister Eggen appointed a working group, inclusive of parents whose children with disabilities had been subject to or at risk of physical restraint and seclusion in time-out rooms, to provide recommendations. He further stated that, “the status quo is simply unacceptable …”. In December 2018, Inclusion Alberta, Autism Society of Alberta and others were invited to meet the Minister’s working group and review its progress. However, it soon became clear that the status quo was not going to change.

Trish Bowman, Inclusion Alberta CEO, noted, “The two largest organizations in Alberta representing families of children with disabilities expressed their deep disappointment with what was being proposed, as Alberta Education had changed virtually nothing from the existing guidelines which had already proven to be grossly inadequate and ineffectual.”

Dr. Keith Goulden, Associate Professor of Developmental Paediatrics, University of Alberta, and a former member of the working group, stated, “We need iron-clad rules, not guidelines, that are enforced through accurate reporting and real consequences for failing to act as required. Responding to an unanticipated emergency is one thing but the repeated use of seclusion and restraints only occurs if there is a lack of planning, preparation and education. “

In turn, Inclusion Alberta, Autism Society of Alberta and parents on the working group itself sent letters to the Minister and Premier, voicing our collective dismay that our children were not worthy of protection and the minimum action needed to ensure their safety and well-being was nowhere to be seen. To-date, no responses have been received and parents and others on the working group continue to say that their input and recommendations have been ignored.

Marcy Oakes, a parent who has a lawsuit against the government and a school district for locking her son in a seclusion room, and a member of the working group, commented, “When Minister Eggen invited me to join the working group and then publicly and personally reassured me that he understood the urgency of the issue and the need for accountability, I trusted him and took him at his word. Now I feel this may have been mere tokenism and there is a risk the government will claim its new guidelines are the result of listening to parents when guidelines do not work and are not the accountability mechanism we have been seeking.”

Given guidelines alone have failed horribly across the province, there must be a robust and accountable mechanism in law that governs, limits and monitors the use of seclusion, physical restraints and time-out rooms. Positive and proactive approaches must be strengthened and a commitment to quality practice fundamentally assured. The proposed guidelines offer no accountability and still permit children with disabilities to be confined in seclusion and time-out rooms; will continue to result in parents being coerced to agree to restraint and seclusion and will continue to see children experience physical and emotional trauma.

Almost immediately after Inclusion Alberta shared its survey results, and parents shared their stories of how damaging these actions can be, the Education Minister released a statement agreeing to ban the use of seclusion rooms in Alberta schools.

See the complete survey results (content warning: abuse, trauma, isolation)

Seclusion and Restraints Survey Data Summary

(content warning: abuse, trauma, isolation)

Use of seclusion and restraint: 389 parents of children with disabilities/special needs who completed the survey reported: 53% of their children had been secluded and restrained at school; 43% had only been secluded; 12% only restrained

Age: Nearly 80% of the children were between 5-10 years of age when secluded, restrained or both. In effect, the more vulnerable of this student population were being subject to the harshest forms of punishment. A little more than half were reported to have autism.

Inclusion vs segregation: Children who were fully included in regular classrooms were less likely to be restrained or secluded while children only partially integrated or completely segregated were more than twice as likely to be secluded/restrained (33% vs. 70-75%).

Types of restraint and seclusion:

  • Restraint: 50% of parents reported their child was restrained either in a seated or standing position and 24% reported their child was held down on the floor either face up or face down.
  • Seclusion: 50% of parents reported their child was locked in seclusion and about the same percentage reported their child’s exit was blocked by an adult, with 20% also saying their child was physically restrained.

Knowledge of seclusion or restraint: The majority of parents learned from their child, not school personnel, that their son or daughter was being secluded, restrained or both.

 Length of seclusion or restraint:

  • Almost a 1/3 of parents did not know how long their child was either secluded or restrained as they were not provided with this information.
  • About 30% of children were restrained for more than 30 minutes with 12% of those restrained for an hour or more and 3.4% more than 3 hours.
  • 71% of parents were never told how long their child was restrained or were rarely told.
  • 57% were secluded for more than 30 minutes, and of those 22% were secluded for an hour or more and 15% more than 3 hours.
  • 53% of parents were rarely told or never knew how long their child was kept in seclusion.


44 – 47% of parents reported their child was restrained or secluded on a daily or weekly basis. Almost 33% did not know how often their child was restrained and 22% did not know how often their child was secluded.

Harmful effects:

Approximately 82% of parents whose children were restrained reported their child experienced emotional trauma or distress, 26% noted their child showed signs of physical trauma and 27% signs of physical pain. Almost 80% of parents whose children were secluded reported their child was emotionally traumatized or distressed, 19% reported signs of physical injury and 15% signs of physical pain.

Ethical practices:

  • 75 to 78% of parents never gave their consent for their child to be restrained or secluded.
  • 62 to 67% of parents reported that restraints and seclusion were not being used as part of a positive behaviour plan.
  • Only 15 to 20% could say restraints and seclusion were part of a positive behaviour support plan.
  • 66 to 69% reported that a psychologist was not involved in approving restraints or seclusion and only 8% to 9% could say one was.
  • 71 to 77% stated that the use of restraints or seclusion was not a part of their child’s Individual Program Plan (IPP) and only 12% to 17% could say it was.
  • 92 to 95% of parents were not given a copy of the school district’s guidelines on the use of restraints and seclusion.
  • 77 to 80% reported their child’s behaviour did not improve with use of restraints or seclusion.
  • 90 to 93% of parents were not told of the possible harmful effects of restraints or seclusion.
  • 84 – 88% of parents contacted their school systems with their concerns about restraints or seclusion but only 12 – 15% were satisfied with the response they received; of those who contacted Alberta Education only 3 – 8.5% were satisfied.

Other responses:

About 7% reported positive reasons for the use of restraints and seclusion. A number of these related primarily to buses, where students were restrained when a bus attendant and/or positive behaviour support program to enable safe transportation was not provided. Others confused the use of sensory rooms or sensory breaks that students voluntarily used or needed for self-regulation, which this survey was not questioning. Nor did this survey question the isolated use of restraint or seclusion in instances of unforeseen emergencies when no other safe options existed.

See the complete survey results (content warning: abuse, trauma, isolation)