A boy in a ply­wood box

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGOLAN­D -

The ply­wood box in the mid­dle of Ted Meck­ley’s spe­cial-ed­u­ca­tion class­room was 3 feet wide, 3 feet deep and 7 feet tall. The schools around Pon­tiac had been us­ing boxes to se­clude stu­dents for years, and Ted, a non­ver­bal 16-year-old with de­vel­op­men­tal dis­abil­i­ties, was rou­tinely shut in­side.

In 1989, Ted’s mother, Ju­dith, started speak­ing out. News­pa­pers pub­lished sto­ries, peo­ple got up­set, and the boxes were re­moved.

Ju­dith Meck­ley joined a state task force to ex­am­ine the use of seclu­sion. Af­ter a brief ban on the prac­tice, the state Board of Ed­u­ca­tion is­sued guid­ance and then, a few years later, rules that car­ried the weight of state law.

The Illi­nois rules ac­cepted the need for seclu­sion, a prac­tice al­ready used in psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tals and other in­sti­tu­tional set­tings.

Af­ter Congress en­acted a 1975 law guar­an­tee­ing a free pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion to chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties, the col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties that trained teach­ers sought guid­ance from be­hav­ioral psy­chol­o­gists on how to man­age these po­ten­tially chal­leng­ing stu­dents.

At the time, some re­searchers fa­vored us­ing cat­tle prods and elec­tric shock to dis­cour­age un­wanted be­hav­ior. An­other method was to move the mis­be­hav­ing pa­tient into an en­vi­ron­ment with fewer stim­uli — some­place calmer.

“It gave a psy­cho­log­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for seclu­sion,” said Scot Dan­forth, a pro­fes­sor at Chap­man Univer­sity in Cal­i­for­nia who stud­ies the ed­u­ca­tion of chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties and be­lieves seclu­sion is in­ef­fec­tive.

Illi­nois’ rules, now 20 years old, re­quire that school em­ploy­ees con­stantly mon­i­tor the child and that they be able to see in­side the room. Locks on the doors must be ac­tive, mean­ing they have to be con­tin­u­ously held in place. That’s so a child can’t be trapped dur­ing a fire or other emer­gency.

But the rules also ce­mented the use of seclu­sion in Illi­nois’ pub­lic schools.

“Es­sen­tially the reg­u­la­tions le­git­imized prac­tices that place stu­dents at risk of se­ri­ous harm and trauma,” said Naid­itch, of

ON­LINE: Want to know if your school dis­trict has been us­ing seclu­sion? For a lookup tool, the method­ol­ogy be­hind our reporting and more, go to chicagotri­bune. com/se­cluded

Equip for Equal­ity.

The Illi­nois law also lists rea­sons chil­dren can be phys­i­cally re­strained, a prac­tice some­times used in con­junc­tion with seclu­sion. But the law is less pre­cise about seclu­sion than about re­straint, leav­ing room for mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion by school of­fi­cials.

“It makes it even more dan­ger­ous be­cause schools are widely us­ing it as pun­ish­ment,” Naid­itch said af­ter read­ing some of the in­ci­dent re­ports ob­tained by ProPublica Illi­nois and the Tribune.

School ad­min­is­tra­tors who use seclu­sion say they need it to deal with stu­dents whose be­hav­ior is chal­leng­ing, dis­rup­tive and, at times, dan­ger­ous.

“If (stu­dents are) com­mit­ted to hurt­ing some­one, that room is a way to keep them safe,” said Ali­cia Corrigan, di­rec­tor of stu­dent ser­vices for Com­mu­nity Con­sol­i­dated School Dis­trict 15, which op­er­ates a ther­a­peu­tic day pro­gram in Rolling Mead­ows for 40 stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties.

Stu­dents there were se­cluded about 330 times in the time pe­riod re­porters ex­am­ined.

But “that’s the small­est part of our day,” Corrigan said. “That is not what we do all day.”

The Belleville Area Spe­cial Ser­vices

Co­op­er­a­tive, near St. Louis, has two time­out rooms. Scratch marks are vis­i­ble in the blue pad­ding in­side and on the win­dows in the heavy, lock­ing doors.

“Does it ac­tu­ally teach them any­thing or de­velop a skill? Ab­so­lutely not,” said Jeff Daugh­erty, who heads the co­op­er­a­tive. He al­lowed jour­nal­ists to tour the Path­ways school and see time­out rooms. “It’s never pleas­ant. I do be­lieve it’s a nec­es­sary tool for our line of work with our stu­dents.”

The U.S. Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion warned in 2012 that se­clud­ing stu­dents can be dan­ger­ous and said that there is no ev­i­dence it’s ef­fec­tive in re­duc­ing prob­lem­atic be­hav­iors.

A few school dis­tricts in Illi­nois pro­hibit seclu­sion, in­clud­ing Chicago Pub­lic Schools, which banned it 11 years ago. But these dis­tricts of­ten send stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties to schools that do use it, such as those op­er­ated by most of Illi­nois’ spe­ciale­d­u­ca­tion dis­tricts.

Dan­forth said seclu­sion goes un­ex­am­ined be­cause it largely af­fects stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties.

To put chil­dren in time­out rooms, “you re­ally have to be­lieve that you’re deal­ing with peo­ple who are deeply de­fec­tive. And that’s what the staff mem­bers tell each other. … You can do it be­cause of who you’re do­ing it to.”

Ted Meck­ley, whose ex­pe­ri­ences in Pon­tiac’s time­out box as a teenager helped change the prac­tice of seclu­sion, is now 45 and liv­ing in a group home. When a re­porter told his mother that seclu­sion still was widely used, she gasped.

“No!” Meck­ley said. “My good­ness. That is the most dis­cour­ag­ing thing. I spent six

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