Writing Disability Right Disability Journalism

Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication building.

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LivAbility Magazine, Arizona's leading magazine for people with disabilities.

ProPublica Investigative Journalist Heather Vogell Honored

Vogell receiving an award on stage.

Photo by Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication

ProPublica investigative journalist, Heather Vogell, winner of the Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability, was in Phoenix to discuss her prize-winning work, “Violent and Legal: The Shocking Ways School Kids are Being Pinned Down, Isolated Against Their Will,” which examined the use of forced seclusion and restraints on students with disabilities.
LivAbility sat down with Vogell to discuss her work; following are excerpts edited here for space and clarity.

LivAbility: What brought this issue of classroom use of restraints to your attention?

Vogell: I got a phone call from an advocate, and she was in touch with the mother of a kindergarten boy who was being repeatedly restrained in his classroom and she’d been trying to get them to stop and had been unsuccessful so far.

So, this advocate told me this whole story, and I had not been aware this was happening in schools. A few weeks later, I came across a report that was put out by a Senate committee about the issue of restraint seclusion being used in schools, and they were introducing legislation that had been languishing for years in Congress which would have created a universal set of rules that would have restricted schools’ ability to use these techniques. That bill had gone nowhere and it’s gone nowhere since then.

75% of the 267,000 reported cases of combined restraint and seclusion were students with disabilities.

Vogell’s data indicated that roughly ¾ of the 267,000 reported cases of combined restraint and seclusion were students with disabilities. One of Vogell’s challenges in her reporting was recognizing that these numbers represented a “huge undercount that was still a staggering number that had never been reported before.”

Vogell quickly learned that the use of seclusion and restraint was very loosely regulated. The rules varied from school-to-school, from district-to-district and from state-to-state. To more clearly represent the information, she worked with others to create a scorecard that used 6 criteria:

  • Is the use of restraints limited to emergencies?
  • Is the use of seclusions limited to emergencies?
  • Is parental notification of either practice required?
  • Is the use of seclusions prohibited?
  • Are restraints that restrict breathing banned?
  • Are mechanical restraints prohibited?

With 10 being the best score, Arizona scored a 4.

LivAbility: What surprised you most in your reporting on this story?

Vogell: The original tip ended up not being the lede in the story. What surprised me was how easy it was to find other people who had been through experiences that were – terrifying, frankly. This was not a very rare thing that I had come across. It shocked me that this was something that was out there everywhere.

Vogell tells her story through the powerful profiles of several individuals, starting with 10-year-old Carson Luke, a boy with autism. Carson was subjected to his school ‘quiet room’ repeatedly. One day, that experience led to fractures of his hand and foot that required hospitalization and surgery.

Vogell relates Carson’s experience through his mother Heather’s words: “He said you can hear them do the locks, which is how I know there were three,” Luke says. “There were times when they would put him in there, and he would be screaming. They would say, ‘If you don’t shut up, we’re going to put the fan on.’ He hated the sound.”

Read Heather Vogell’s full story: “Violent and Legal: The Shocking Ways School Kids are Being Pinned Down, Isolated Against Their Will” at ProPublica.org. Our taped interview with Vogell is available on our website.

Contributor Section

Jennifer Longdon

Jennifer Longdon
Writer, Community Advocate

Jennifer Longdon is known to drink too much coffee, ask too many questions and then write about it. She has served on numerous Boards and Commissions focused on disability advocacy including the Phoenix Mayor’s Commission on Disability Issues, the Statewide Independent Living Council and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation Public Impact Panel. Jen has a T-4 spinal cord injury and uses a wheelchair full time. She’s a regular contributor to LivAbility.