Representative Sean Casten

Representing the 6th District of Illinois

Let’s Ban Secluded ‘Quiet Rooms’ in Schools Nationwide

January 21, 2020
In The News

Until recently, state Rep. Jonathan Carroll, a Northbrook Democrat, says he has avoided talking much in public about his childhood experiences with isolation punishment.

But he was moved to blog about it after the chilling revelations in a recent investigation by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois of the disciplinary policy called “isolated timeout” or “quiet rooms,” among other names.

Diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at a time when the condition was still poorly understood by most people, Carroll said, he faced repeated rounds of isolation-as-punishment at school. He still remembers the smell and carpeted walls of the small room into which he was locked, he wrote.

“To the 12-year old boy who’s still inside of me dealing with this pain, I will do everything in my power to not have others feel the same way,” he wrote.

I sympathize with his sentiments. I also can empathize with him. I, too, was diagnosed was having a “high-functioning” version of ADHD, which, by my reckoning, may have helped to prepare me for a career in the short-attention-span-appeasing world of daily journalism.

But I didn’t find out about that until the 1990s. The disorder had become more widely known but I was deep into adulthood and long out of school. Although I was sent to the principal’s office more times than I want to brag about, I didn’t go through anything like the horrors that the Tribune and ProPublica Illinois team uncovered.

“In Illinois,” the reporters wrote, “it’s legal for school employees to seclude students in a separate space — to put them in ‘isolated timeout’ — if the students pose a safety threat to themselves or others. Yet, every school day, workers isolate children for reasons that violate the law, an investigation by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois has found.”

“The students, most of them with disabilities, scratch the windows or tear at the padded walls. They throw their bodies against locked doors. They wet their pants. Some children spend hours inside these rooms, missing class time. Through it all, adults stay outside the door, writing down what happens.”

The use of seclusion and restraint in schools is not a new issue, especially to those who care about unequal application of punishments. In the 2015-16 school year, 122,000 students across the country were restrained or secluded, according to the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection.

Although students with disabilities make up 12% of total enrollment across the country, they make up 71% of students who were restrained and 66% of the students who were secluded, according to the data. African American students make up 15% of total enrollment, but 27% of those students subject to restraint and 23% of those students who were secluded in school.

Of the 12,000 incidents between 2017 and 2018 that included enough detail to determine what justified the seclusion, the reporters said more than a third of these incidents included no safety reason for the action. Instead, children reportedly were sent to isolation for offenses as common as swearing, spilling milk, throwing Legos or refusing to do classwork.

Fortunately, political leaders responded quickly to this controversy. A day after the report appeared on the Tribune’s website, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker called the practice of isolated timeouts “appalling” and vowed to work with legislators on long-term solutions. The Illinois State Board of Education announced emergency action to end the practice of isolated timeouts.

And the state’s two U.S. senators, Democrats Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, and 10 members of the House of Representatives, spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, a Chicago-area Democrat, asked Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to tell schools to end the seclusion rooms and other physical restraints and instead promote “evidence-based alternatives.”

What might those be? One impressive example mentioned in the report is the Grafton behavioral health network in Virginia, where employees were injured so frequently in confrontations with students that the district lost its workers’ compensation insurance.

That changed after its private therapeutic day schools changed their approach to a behavior model that focuses on what Kim Sanders, executive vice president of network, calls “comfort,” instead of “control” of the students. The model called Ukeru has been so successful at reducing violent events down to near-zero that they now sell it to other schools.

That’s encouraging. Anyone who deals with children — or is trying to raise them — knows that it’s a tough job, but it doesn’t always call for “tough love.” Nonviolent alternatives can work better — and more safely.

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