School Climate: How People with Disabilities Are Harmed In School and How We Can Fight Back

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Kids from ages 6-18 have the right to an education in a public school. A public school is a school for kids run by the government. A private school is a school that is not owned by the government. Some kids go to private schools instead. 

All students deserve the right to a good education free of cruelty, harm, and fear. Kids with disabilities have the right to an education too. Sometimes though, bad things happen in schools that hurt the education of students with disabilities. Some of these things are so bad they can cause injury or death. 

Things that happen in schools that make it hard for people with disabilities to get an education are things that make the school climate worse. “School climate” is a phrase that means “what being in the school is like.” In a school with a good school climate, everyone can get an education and no one feels unsafe. In a school with a bad school climate, some people can’t get an education and many people feel unsafe. 

ASAN wants to improve school climate for everyone, so everyone can get a good education – including people with disabilities. On this page, we will explain some important issues that have to do with school climate. Some of the issues on this page were so important we created a separate page for them. We will link to those pages on this page. 

Restraint, Seclusion, and Aversives

Some schools use restraint and seclusion on people with disabilities. Some use aversives. All three hurt people with disabilities. 

Restraint is when someone stops someone else from moving.  This can mean someone holding another person down.  It can mean tying a person down to a chair.  There are other kinds of restraints too.  Restraints are dangerous. Some people have even died because they were restrained!

Seclusion is when someone locks someone else in an empty room. Seclusion is dangerous, too. Sometimes, the person will get pushed or pulled into the room. They may get hurt. Sometimes the room is too hot or too cold. Sometimes the person will get left there a very long time. They may get hungry or thirsty. They may need to use the bathroom.

Aversives are a kind of punishment done to people with disabilities. They are used when someone wants a person with a disability to stop doing something. The point of an aversive is to make the person with a disability feel pain or discomfort. They can be anything, including really horrible things like refusing to let someone eat or electric shocks. 

Restraint, seclusion, and aversives are NEVER okay. They are ALWAYS wrong.

Why Schools Use Restraint, Seclusion, and Aversives

Schools use all restraint, seclusion, and aversives on people with disabilities for many reasons. None of these reasons make it okay to hurt people. Some reasons are: 

  • They think we will do something even more dangerous if they do not use them. But there are lots of other ways to help people be safe.
  • They want to control us and make us act more like non-disabled people. This is bad. We want to act like ourselves, not like people without disabilities.
  • We are in the middle of doing something that will probably hurt someone else. But there are other ways to stop people from hurting other people. 

Schools also use restraint, seclusion, and aversives because nothing is stopping them. There is no U.S. government law that bans restraint, seclusion, and aversives. Instead, each state has a different law. The state law only works in that state. 

Some state laws ban most kinds of restraint, seclusion, and aversives. Some state laws only ban some types of restraint, seclusion, and aversives. These state laws do not cover enough. It would be better if we had one U.S. government law that worked in every state. ASAN wants all schools to stop using restraint, seclusion, and aversives. 

The Keeping All Students Safe Act 

The Keeping All Students Safe Act (KASSA) is a U.S. government law that was introduced in Congress. KASSA would ban all kinds of seclusion and aversives. It would also ban most kinds of restraint in every state.

Only one kind of restraint would still be allowed. If there is an emergency and a student is going to hurt someone else right now, a teacher would be allowed to hold the student in place until it was safe. Only teachers with training in how to not hurt people can do this. Someone has to tell the student’s parents when the student is restrained. 

States would have to tell Congress on how many students their schools restrain. They would also tell Congress important things about those students (like race, ethnicity, and disability). School districts would get money that would help them make the school a better place to be. 

ASAN supports KASSA. Call your Members of Congress and tell them you want them to support KASSA too. We need your help to get KASSA passed. 

#StopTheShock and the Judge Rotenberg Center

There is a kind of aversive that is so bad that the United Nations said it was torture. It is used by only one place – the Judge Rotenberg Center. You can learn more about ASAN’s campaign to get rid of it by reading #StopTheShock: The Judge Rotenberg Center, Torture, and How We can End It. 


What Bullying Is

The kind of bullying we are talking about is when students hurt other students. 

Bullying can mean beating someone up. It can mean touching them when they don’t want to be touched or stuffing their head in a toilet. Bullying can mean calling someone names or leaving them out of games where the rest of the class plays together. It can mean saying horrible things about someone. It can mean making rude gestures. It can mean spreading rumors. Bullying makes students feel sad, lonely, and scared. It can make it hard to get an education. 

Bullying is a Civil Rights Issue 

Bullying is also a civil rights issue. Bullying is often based on someone’s race, age, sex, sexual orientation and/or gender, ethnic origin, or disability. When a student is bullied because of one of these things, and the bullying gets so bad that the student cannot learn, it violates civil rights laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Schools have to make sure their school climate is good enough that all students can learn in it. Bullying creates a bad school climate. The Department of Education says this is true. 

In 2014 the Department of Education wrote a document on bullying, students with disabilities, and civil rights in schools. This document said: 

  • Bullying someone because of their disability violates the ADA and Section 504.
  • If a student with a disability gets bullied for any reason, and the student gets bullied so much they can’t learn, it violates the IDEA.
  • The school must act quickly to end the bullying if it thinks a student with a disability is being bullied. 

What You Can Do to Stop Bullying In Schools 

There a couple of things you can do to stop bullying in schools, or to stop bullies if you are being bullied: 

  • The U.S. government has lots of anti-bullying websites and documents. is a good place to start.
  • Tell the school that you or someone else is being bullied. Schools usually have a way to report bullying.
  • You could file a complaint based on the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Keep in mind that filing a complaint means fighting the school.
  • Talk to an advocacy organization, like ASAN. 

Privacy Rights 

Privacy is the right to keep some things hidden about yourself. Everyone has things they only want some people to know about. All students have the right to privacy. Sometimes people try and keep schools safe in ways that take away student privacy rights. 

ASAN wants schools to be safe. That means we also want students to be able to keep their privacy rights. Read “Your Right to Privacy: How Safety Can Threaten Privacy and How You Can Fight For It” for more information.