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Schools Allegedly Using Emergency Rooms For Timeout

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A group of parents are suing after they say their children with disabilities were repeatedly sent from school to hospital emergency rooms in response to tantrums and other behavior issues.

The parents of six New York City students are suing the city and the local Department of Education alleging that schools are calling ambulances to transport children to hospitals because they don’t have proper procedures or staff in place to address the situations.

One student referred to as J.H. in court papers, now age 6, was sent to the hospital by ambulance against his mother’s wishes on numerous occasions including one instance when school staff said he was “not listening” and “refused to sit on a rug,” according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in New York last week. The child’s mother says her son is now disinterested in going to school and afraid of police and the hospital.

Meanwhile, a now-7-year-old with autism known as D.E. was sent to the ER repeatedly as a kindergartner after having tantrums even though he was often calm before the ambulance arrived and his mother asked to take him home instead. On several occasions, the mother and son spent between four and six hours at the hospital before staff determined that the boy did not require emergency services, the lawsuit alleges.

“Our clients are but a few of the thousands of students who are sent to the emergency room each year for disruptive behaviors,” said Nelson Mar, staff attorney at Legal Services NYC-Bronx, which filed the suit on behalf of the families. “We will seek to compel the city to end this costly practice of using hospital ERs as a ‘timeout room’ for students who act out in school.”

The legal aid organization said that during the 2011-2012 school year there were over 3,600 calls from schools in New York City to emergency services stemming from allegedly disruptive student behavior and the number of such calls is on the rise. In the majority of cases where students were taken by emergency officials from schools, the children had disabilities, the attorneys said.

Parents — all of whom are referred to only by their initials in court documents — say that the practice puts them in a tough spot financially, forcing them to miss work and leaving them with significant hospital and ambulance bills resulting from the incidents, and traumatizes their children.

“I hope that this lawsuit changes the system and other families don’t have to go through this,” said the mother of one of the students in a statement released by attorneys. “It has caused a financial and emotional strain for me and my entire family. I feel that they sent my son to the emergency room as an excuse to not do their job. If my child acts up at home I cannot send my son to the hospital emergency room.”

Devon Puglia, a spokesman for the New York schools, did not respond to request for comment from Disability Scoop, but told The Wall Street Journal that, “our school leaders make decisions in the best interests of children — be it instructionally or otherwise.”

The suit alleges violations of local and federal regulations and laws including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The families are seeking damages and say they want city education officials to provide appropriate training and resources so that school staff can handle disruptive behaviors without contacting emergency services.

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Comments (7 Responses)

  1. Dani Feierstein says:

    That this absolutely outrageous. The teachers are simply lazy and that is the easy way out. The schools should be charged ofr the cost of the ambulance and the ER costs as well as the expense incurred in dealing with the trauma to the child and the rest of the family.

  2. Laurie says:

    Good grief.

  3. Brenda says:

    I have experienced something similar in Missouri. My son has Asperger’s syndrome and for years has stated that he is going to kill himself while having a meltdown. The school has always handled the situation until this year. This year they made me take him to an emergency room despite the fact that once I arrived at the school my son was calm. It would normally be a serious threat but like I said he has made this threat since he started school and has never ever even tried to make such an event come true. I spent 5 hours in the emergency room. I was released with my son as the medical staff did not find him to be a true threat to himself. It was a meltdown and he was not able to control his emotions. He is getting better at this as he ages but still has a few meltdowns of this magnitude. I could not believe that I had ended up in the emergency room over a threat that the school has heard numerous times within the last 8 years.

  4. Michelle (South Africa) says:

    Even more disturbing is that our Autistic children(while in hospital) are pumped with scheduled drugs to “shut them up”. Simply because most experts dont really know how to deal with AUTISM. The scariest part is these people have the power to commit our children permanently to psychiatric wards…
    Once home (or back at school) their system/bodies and minds have to process all these ( toxins and withdrawel). Yet again another challenge for the families involved.

  5. Debra says:

    This is just another form of child abuse enacted by people who are incompetent and have no business working with children. This practice teaches the child that the emergency room is a place of punishment. In addition, if the school can bankrupt the family with medical bills, they’ve “showed them”. Some people really need to grow up and get a life.

  6. Natalie Richards says:

    I just experienced the same thing with my son today. Principal Nicole Tine called the police and EMS on my 6 years old child too.

  7. Dr. Mindy McNeal says:

    These children’s IEPs should have an action plan specifically designed to sequence steps for when the child tantrumed. What it looked like, how 1st, 2nd, and 3rd responders should act…even what verbiage should be used. The goal on the IEP would be designed to reflect information collect in a functional behavioral assessment and the behavior modification plan should be written with delineated steps that would foster socially acceptable reactions versus tantrum. I did it for twenty years and was extremely successful in change behaviors.

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