The torture chambers down the street
Once in a great while a piece of news rises above the omnidirectional tedium of our outrage cycle to demand everyone's attention. The Washington, D.C., radio station WAMU recently reported on the plight of hundreds of children placed in so-called "seclusion" in public schools. Some of these children were as young as 6 years old. Some of them were locked up by themselves as often as a hundred times a year. Many of them were intellectually or otherwise disabled. One autistic boy, Elijah Lickenfelt, was locked up for hours on end in a room with no windows.
These are not last-ditch efforts by desperate teachers. School buildings have been designed with the practice in mind. According to Elijah's mother, Anne, the seclusion rooms at her son's former school were "built like Russian nesting dolls, rooms within a room. The innermost room was reserved for children with egregious behavior issues." This is not a story from the imagination of Poe or Sade. It is an American public school attempting to address the apparently inexplicable reality that children misbehave. Reading about it is bad enough, but if you want to see what it looks like when a terrified boy is hauled into a dungeon by an adult who is ostensibly responsible for his well-being, watch this:
What did Fairfax County Public Schools have to say for themselves? Here is the statement made to the radio station:
FCPS is committed to ensuring that all school-based personnel trained in the use of seclusion/restraint understand explicitly the appropriate use of seclusion/restraint to manage extremely challenging student behaviors in emergency situations along with the documentation requirements.
We believe seclusion/restraint in the management of severe student behavior is being used appropriately. Under FCPS guidelines, the practice is prohibited unless there is a dangerous situation and seclusion/restraint is necessary to protect the student or another person or persons.
FCPS is also committed to improving the documentation and reporting of seclusion/restraint at the school level and in the data submitted to OCR. [FCPS via WAMU]
Mind-numbing acronyms. Dehumanizing abstractions. All of it affectless, all of it gibberish, all of it self-exculpatory and utterly unrepentant. The word "child" is not used a single time. There is, in fact, nothing to indicate that human beings of any age are being discussed here. This is how the servants of the great 20th century dictators talked about the populations they were brutalizing — as impersonal factors in a mechanical process being handled correctly by experts in accordance with "guidelines." It is also how our educated professional classes talk about nearly everything.
The practices reported by WAMU are, in fact, appallingly widespread. At least 36,000 children in America were locked up in the 2015-16 school year, and some 86,000 were physically restrained. More often than not these children are disabled. Not long ago, amid virtually no fanfare, Betsy DeVos, our much-criticized secretary of education, announced that her department would attempt to address the issue in public schools.
How is it possible that we have allowed this sort of thing to go on right under our noses? I think it is because of what I like to call the "Henry Tilney trap." Perhaps the least attractive of all Jane Austen's male love interests spoke for all ordinary, would-be decent people when he asked Catherine Morland how she could ever imagine that someone was being held against her will on his father's estate:
Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? [Northanger Abbey]
This is how all of us feel most of the time. We live in the United States. We are Americans. We are a tolerant people. We believe in democracy and the freedom of the individual. We believe in taking care of the poor and the sick. We welcome the marginalized. We have a free press and the internet and thousands of religious and community organizations. We have free public schools staffed with warm and capable adult professionals.
All these supposed principles are suspended whenever victims cannot speak for themselves. Immigrant children put in cages, the disabled shut up in darkness to be entertained by the sound of their own screams, the unborn butchered — there is no ignominy that is not papered over as soon as we decide that the interests or convenience of some other, more powerful and vocal group are more important than their suffering.
This is what makes the Fairfax case interesting. There are no MAGA boogeymen here. Fairfax County is solidly Democratic. It is a synecdoche of white upper-middle-class liberal America. Its residents are well-off, hard-working, well-educated professionals who enjoy all the rewards of our functioning meritocracy. Its public schools are considered among the best in the country. This is how they treat the weak and the vulnerable.
When we are young, we are afraid of things that are under our beds or inside our closets, and later when we cease to be afraid of them we are told that, finally, we have grown up. What nonsense. All the fairy tales are true. The monsters are real, and they really do take children and lock them away in the dark.