Fargo, N.D. (Valley News Live) - "He ran into one of the boys he was in the Agassiz program with," says Ashly Hafdahl, a Fargo parent. "He asked if he was OK, he asked if he was safe, and if he was feeling better now. It was kind of incredible and sad at the same time because that's not how a child should look at their peer. Are they safe, are they OK, are they feeling better? And it just, to me, really speaks to the impact of what happened to him."
Hafdahl's 9-year-old son is in therapy for PTSD after being secluded and restrained at school more than 50 times in a four month period. "He didn't want to be at school. It wasn't a safe, fun place for him where he got to learn and hang out with friends. It was a dangerous place to him, it was a place where people hurt him," she says. "He would be bawling, he didn't want to go."
Hafdahl says she doesn't know if her son will feel safe at school again, but there is new hope for other children.
The House and the Senate have introduced the 'Keeping All Students Safe Act,' which prohibits schools from putting children in seclusion rooms and limits how and when they can use restraints.
"Kids die every year from seclusion and restraint in our country, and that's pretty sad," says Brenda Ruehl, a disabilities advocate with the Protection & Advocacy Project. "We do have schools in North Dakota that rarely ever restrain a child. And we have other schools that do it on a daily basis."
"It's really a community problem and I think something like this might make it more transparent so that people would know that it's going on," Ruehl says. "It's a great step in the right direction."
According to the Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders, seclusion and restraints can cause children 'significant psychological damage,' physical injury or death, and there is little evidence that the practice is effective in changing student behavior. Child protection advocates say the legislation could have a big impact in North Dakota, where there aren't any state-wide policies for seclusion and restraint.
"They can't force anybody to put it in their statute, but we're certainly going to use it – those of us that are in education, special education, and child protection are certainly going to say, 'Look, here's a federal act. It says you can't do that,'" Ruehl says. "If it becomes policy, I would hope that they would find a way to do it."
"I think it would be stressful to begin with, but I also think that, and I would hope, people would welcome that," she adds. "We just need to understand that we can't keep harming the kids, and we need to give teachers, educators, and paras and all people involved with children better tools and more resources."
When asked about the 'Keep All Students Safe Act,' Kirsten Baesler, North Dakota's Superintendent of Public Instruction, says, "This issue is regulated by states, and my instinct is that states should lead on this issue, and not have something imposed by the federal government."
While it may be too late for Hafdahl's family, she hopes the law will go into effect and protect other families from sharing her experience.
"I think every time you have to seclude and restrain a child, you've failed. You've failed that child, you've failed your staff, you've failed that school, you've failed the other students in that room because of the damaging effects that it has," Hafdahl says.