SCHOOLS AS PRISONS? ON USE OF SECLUSION AND ISOLATION



A couple of days ago a report that came out on appalling abuse of "isolated time-out" in Illinois public schools, both in special education and general educational settings. An investigation was conducted by ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune. The concepts of "isolated time-out" and "seclusion" were used interchangeably, and it seemed that both were taking place. Children as young as five years old were put in rooms alone, with adults outside writing down their every move. Some of the rooms were tiny at 3 x 3 feet, and not padded, some with concrete walls. While average time in a room like this was calculated at 22 minutes, many children stayed longer than that, sometimes for many hours. Contrary to the state law, many children were kept in isolation much longer than their "disruptive" behavior lasted.


While the Illinois law requires that seclusion/isolation be used only when there is a "threat of physical harm" at any level, in practice isolation rooms were used for minor behavior incidents and even when students just spilled milk or did not finish classwork. There was even an instance of "pre-correction," when staff decided to isolate a child to prevent disruptive behavior that could potentially occur. Although parent had to be notified of the incidents, they received information very late and in a format that did not trigger concerns.


Reading accounts of children's experiences in these rooms is heart-breaking. Banging heads, scratching and hitting walls until their hands bled, getting undressed, soiling the floor, begging the staff to let them out... I could barely manage to read through the descriptions. There likely are some children who can successfully cope with short-length seclusion used as a last resort. It would not help them, but it would likely not create long-term damage either. For many children, however, the effect of routine use of seclusion on development will be devastating, especially when the practice is abused in the ways described in the article. The extent of damage to mental health, ability to trust others, ability to learn, and, to be sure, to the entire developmental trajectory that can result from these experiences is unimaginable.


With this said, I was surprised by the extent to which a comment by Dr. Ross Greene, for whom I have the deepest respect, missed the ballpark on this issue. Dr. Greene referred to a "harmful cycle" of a frustrated child who is taken out of the classroom due to behavioral issues caused by that frustration and therefore will fall even further behind academically and become more frustrated as a result. My guess is that Dr. Ross was commenting either on a child being taken out of the classroom but not necessarily into isolation, or on seclusion practice in general, rather than the kind of blatant abuse of it described in the article. Dr. Greene is quoted as saying, “You end up with an alienated, disenfranchised kid who is being over-punished and lacks faith in adults.” As I have expressed above, and will further explain below, I think that the damage is much more extensive.


Isolation rooms described in the report were used with students who have many types of disabilities, not just autism. Many children described in the article are, or were, autistic. Imagine a child who has limited coping and communication skills, limited ways to process experiences, who has sensory differences, who more often than not has anxiety or other mood disorders and who has trouble building relationships... And now imagine this child being put in a room by him- or herself for long periods of time, struggling with every aspect of the experience, asking for help and not receiving it.


Seclusion is supposed to provide an opportunity for students to learn how to calm themselves down. What sane person would think that there is a learning value in this experience? How can a child learn skills under severe stress? How can a child learn skills by being forced to be alone? Lastly, and seemingly a minor point here, how can a child learn skills without explanation and instruction?


A lot is said these days about the effect of trauma on learning and about trauma-informed schools. How can a school endeavor to teach by creating rather than addressing trauma?


Everything about the findings of this investigation is deeply disturbing. Two things, however, stood out as especially disheartening.


First one is a conversation with Scot Danforth, a professor at Chapman University in California, who believes that staff could only justify doing this to children by considering them "deeply defective." He also believes that this practice is not monitored because it is mostly used for children with disabilities. "You can do it because of who you’re doing it to." This sounded so impossibly dehumanizing and inhuman, I wanted to doubt what I was reading, so I emailed Dr. Danforth to confirm that I understood correctly. Here is what he wrote back: “These policies and practices are viewed as OK in response to misbehavior for a student with a disability but no one would imagine doing this in response to misbehavior of a non-disabled student. That is the difference in attitude. That is the ableism in practice.” Yes, unfortunately, I understood Dr. Danforth's scathing opinion correctly.


Second thing is the reaction of the Eastern Illinois district’s executive director, Tony Reeley, who said he did not realize how serious the abuse was until he read the documents provided to him by the reporters. Here is a quote “Looking at a stack of 8,000 pages at one time really did kind of hit home.” Kind of? At another time Mr. Reeley is quoted as having said, “We have to do something to address this.” What would it take for someone like Mr. Reeley to really get that this situation is unacceptable and abusive, and requires an urgent and decisive action? I do not want to pick on Mr. Reeley as I know nothing about him. Many other school officials are quoted in the article as being very little disturbed and minimizing the seriousness of the situation. The article does not provide an evaluation of their responses. It just cites their words. That administrators like the ones cited in the article are in charge of the most vulnerable students is a very chilling thought.


A recent interview with Jodi Cohen, one of the journalists involved in the investigation, contains information on the Illinois government taking swift action to stop use of seclusion/isolation. We can be hopeful that new rules and regulations will actually trickle down into practice and protect children from further abuse in schools.

There is no federal law prohibiting seclusion, although various proposals have been discussed. Overall, nineteen states prohibit secluding children in locked rooms; four of them, including in Massachusetts, where I live, ban any type of seclusion. But when you read the article, you can see how legislation does not always protect children, unless someone is paying close attention to how the law is being followed.

Learn the strategies you can use to protect your child and have a peace of mind about his or her school experience. Download a free Parent Guide to Monitoring Discipline in School and find out how to always know how your child is being disciplined.


Additional Resources: Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint

Photo credit: A seclusion room is shown Oct. 11, 2019, at Braun Educational Center in Oak Forest, which is operated by the Southwest Cook County Cooperative Association for Special Education. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)