The Quiet Rooms

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGOLAN­D -

the state. “To the ex­tent there is bad prac­tice go­ing on across the state, we need to fix that.”

The Kaskaskia dis­trict’s re­volv­ing-door use of the time­out booths stands out, but some other dis­tricts se­cluded chil­dren nearly as fre­quently.

The Spe­cial Ed­u­ca­tion Dis­trict of Lake County used iso­lated time­out about 1,200 times over the 15-month pe­riod re­porters ex­am­ined. North­ern Sub­ur­ban Spe­cial Ed­u­ca­tion Dis­trict in High­land Park put chil­dren in seclu­sion more than 900 times.

Some tra­di­tional school dis­tricts also re­lied on seclu­sion. For ex­am­ple, Val­ley View School Dis­trict 365U in Romeoville and Schaum­burg Dis­trict 54 each se­cluded stu­dents more than 160 times in the time pe­riod ex­am­ined. Wil­mette Dis­trict 39 put stu­dents in iso­lated time­out 361 times in 2017-18 alone.

Illi­nois’ seclu­sion rules are more per­mis­sive than fed­eral guide­lines, which say seclu­sion should be used only in cases of “im­mi­nent dan­ger of se­ri­ous phys­i­cal harm.” In Illi­nois, chil­dren can be se­cluded for phys­i­cal safety con­cerns re­gard­less of the threat level.

The state law also doesn’t en­cour­age staff to try other in­ter­ven­tions first. And while fed­eral of­fi­cials sug­gest that seclu­sion should end as soon as the prob­lem­atic be­hav­ior stops, Illi­nois law al­lows a child to be se­cluded for up to 30 min­utes more.

Even with these looser rules, the ProPublica Illi­nois/Tribune in­ves­ti­ga­tion found that Illi­nois schools reg­u­larly flouted and mis­in­ter­preted state law.

Some schools used seclu­sion — or the threat of it — as pun­ish­ment. At the Braun Ed­u­ca­tional Cen­ter in south sub­ur­ban Oak For­est, a class­room door fea­tured a sign say­ing: “If you walk to the door or open it you WILL earn” a visit to the “iso­la­tion and re­flec­tion” space. The school’s di­rec­tor said the sign was not a threat but a vis­ual re­minder that leav­ing is a vi­o­la­tion of school rules.

Oth­ers wouldn’t re­lease chil­dren from seclu­sion un­til they apol­o­gized or sat against a wall or put their heads down. The Tri-County Spe­cial Ed­u­ca­tion dis­trict in Car­bon­dale rou­tinely made chil­dren write sen­tences as a con­di­tion of re­lease, records show. Stu­dents there of­ten were kept in iso­la­tion long af­ter the safety threat was over, some­times even start­ing their next school day in a time­out room. Tri-County Di­rec­tor Jan Pearcy told re­porters those prac­tices ended this year.

Ad­min­is­tra­tors in some dis­tricts de­cided that putting a child in a room is not an iso­lated time­out if there is no door or the door is left open — even though the stu­dent is be­ing blocked from leav­ing. State law does not say an iso­lated time­out re­quires a closed door.

“We only con­sider some­thing iso­lated time­out if a stu­dent is in the room with the door shut and mag­net (lock) held,” said Kristin Dunker, who heads the Ver­mil­ion As­so­ci­a­tion for Spe­cial Ed­u­ca­tion in Danville. “I un­der­stand this isn’t go­ing to look good for us.”

At Bridges, records show how staff vi­o­lated the state’s rules. Schools aren’t sup­posed to put stu­dents in seclu­sion for talk­ing back or swear­ing, but Bridges did re­peat­edly. Work­ers also shut many stu­dents in booths for hours af­ter the child’s chal­leng­ing be­hav­ior ended.

One boy ar­gued with Bridges work­ers as they tried to force him into iso­la­tion in March 2018 for be­ing un­co­op­er­a­tive. “I don’t want to go in a booth,” he said. “You’ll lock me in there all day.”

He was kept in the booth for nearly five hours.

Laura My­ers saw Bridges’ time­out booths dur­ing school meet­ings and told ad­min­is­tra­tors they should never be used on her 6-year-old son, Gabriel. A tiny, gig­gly boy with bright red hair, Gabriel has autism and is non­ver­bal, though he can sign a few words, in­clud­ing “blue,” “green” and “truck.”

“There’s a metal bench, the lock and key, the whole nine,” My­ers said. “The sad part is there are par­ents there who don’t know it’s wrong and don’t know how their chil­dren are be­ing treated.”

She was as­sured Gabriel would not be se­cluded. But she started to worry when he came home sign­ing “time­out.” Now, she’s fight­ing for a dif­fer­ent school place­ment.

Harm to chil­dren

Darla Knipe could hear it when she walked to­ward the time­out room in her son’s school: a thud­ding sound, over and over.

She turned to a school aide and asked: “‘What is that noise?’”

It was her 7-year-old son, Isa­iah. The first grader was bang­ing his head against the con­crete and ply­wood walls of the time­out room at Mid­dle­fork School in Danville. Knipe was shocked. He didn’t do that at home, she said.

Doc­u­ments from Isa­iah’s school, part of the Ver­mil­ion As­so­ci­a­tion for Spe­cial Ed­u­ca­tion, show that he was put in the time­out room reg­u­larly be­gin­ning in kinder­garten. He started bang­ing his head in first grade and con­tin­ued through third, do­ing it nearly ev­ery time he was se­cluded.

“Isa­iah states he has headache and ring­ing in his ears,” ac­cord­ing to a re­port from Dec. 8, 2017. “Nurse fill­ing out con­cus­sion form.”

Then, a month later: “Nurse is con­cerned he has been head bang­ing sev­eral times, even slower to an­swer than usual, he was dizzy when he stood up, al­most fell over.”

Sit­ting in his home last spring, Isa­iah, now 10, looked down when asked why he hits his head.

“I tell the teach­ers why,” he said. “The time­out room … I don’t like it.”

Records and in­ter­views show how seclu­sion can harm chil­dren. Stu­dents ripped their fin­ger­nails or bruised their knuck­les hit­ting the door. Their hands swelled and bled from beat­ing the walls. In some cases, chil­dren were hurt so badly that am­bu­lances were called.

Sev­eral par­ents said their chil­dren be­came afraid of school. Some said their chil­dren didn’t want to sleep alone. Other fam­i­lies said the rooms were so dis­tress­ing that their chil­dren would not talk about them.

Angie Martin said her 9-year-old son now sees him­self as such a bad child that he be­lieves he be­longs in seclu­sion. In less than three weeks at the start of this school year, he spent 731 min­utes — more than 12 hours — in iso­lated time­out, records show.

“My con­cern is the dam­age that has been done, so­cially, emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally,” said Martin, whose son went to school in the Lin­coln-Way Area Spe­cial Ed­u­ca­tion dis­trict pro­gram in Chicago’s south­west sub­urbs. He now at­tends a pri­vate school.

The Tribune/ProPublica Illi­nois anal­y­sis found that the me­dian du­ra­tion of a seclu­sion was 22 min­utes; in at least 1,300 cases the stu­dent spent more than an hour in iso­lated time­out.

One in­ci­dent lasted 10 hours, with the stu­dent kept in­side from break­fast into the even­ing.

Ross Greene, a clin­i­cal child psy­chol­o­gist and au­thor of the book “The Ex­plo­sive Child,” said re­peated seclu­sion fu­els a harm­ful cy­cle. Chil­dren who are frus­trated and fall­ing be­hind aca­dem­i­cally are taken out of the class­room, which makes them more frus­trated and puts them even fur­ther be­hind.

“You end up with an alien­ated, dis­en­fran­chised kid who is be­ing over-pun­ished and lacks faith in adults,” Greene said.

Am­ber Patz, whose 11-year-old son Dal­ton was re­peat­edly se­cluded at The Cen­ter, an el­e­men­tary school in East Moline for chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties, said spend­ing so much time in iso­la­tion put him be­hind aca­dem­i­cally and did not help him reg­u­late his be­hav­ior.

“Putting you in this lit­tle room while you get red-faced does not work for him,” she said. “You have to think out­side the box, but in­stead we are lit­er­ally putting them in a box.”

Par­ents of­ten do not know the de­tails of what hap­pens in seclu­sion. Though state law re­quires schools to no­tify fam­i­lies in writ­ing within 24 hours each day a child is se­cluded, that doesn’t al­ways hap­pen.

While some no­tices de­scribe the in­ci­dent, oth­ers are form letters with just a checked box to in­di­cate that a child was se­cluded. The law re­quires only that par­ents be no­ti­fied of the date of the in­ci­dent, whether re­straint or seclu­sion was used, and the name and phone num­ber of some­one to call for more in­for­ma­tion.

Some par­ents said they got such ab­bre­vi­ated no­tices they didn’t know what seclu­sion meant or how long their child had been in a room. Oth­ers said staff used eu­phemistic lan­guage to de­scribe seclu­sion, mak­ing it hard to un­der­stand what re­ally hap­pened.

Crys­tal Lake school em­ploy­ees have sug­gested to Kayla Sieg­meier that her son, Car­son, who has autism, might ben­e­fit from time in a “Blue Room,” she said.

“It turns out the Blue Room is a locked, padded room,” she said.

She read Illi­nois’ iso­lated time­out law and got a doc­tor’s note last year that pre­vented the school from se­clud­ing Car­son, now a se­cond grader. “Hard stop,” she said she told the school.

Crys­tal Lake school of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edged they could be more trans­par­ent with par­ents and said they use the rooms only in emer­gen­cies.

In Danville, Darla Knipe knew that her son Isa­iah was fre­quently in seclu­sion, but she didn’t know the school kept de­tailed in­ci­dent re­ports each time it hap­pened un­til re­porters showed them to her.

“I never got any­thing like this,” Knipe said.

When she re­quested the re­ports from the dis­trict, she said, of­fi­cials told her she could have asked for them any time. “Why would I ask for an in­ci­dent re­port I didn’t know about to be­gin with?” she said.

The dis­trict gave her 212 re­ports, and she didn’t tackle the huge pile of pa­per right away. Then one night she woke up at 2 a.m. and stayed up for hours read­ing them. She learned what set Isa­iah off and how he re­acted.

“If we had talked af­ter three, five, six of these, was there some­thing I should have been do­ing?” she won­dered.

She said she would have shared the re­ports with doc­tors who were work­ing to di­ag­nose the cause of his be­hav­ioral chal­lenges. “I think about how dif­fer­ent that boy could have been.”

Dunker, the dis­trict di­rec­tor, said that although par­ents don’t get minute-byminute re­ports, they are no­ti­fied by phone and then in writ­ing af­ter a seclu­sion. “I feel like that is just fine in terms of what a par­ent needs,” she said.

A bet­ter way

There are school dis­tricts in Illi­nois — and all across the coun­try — where seclu­sion isn’t the re­sponse to de­fi­ant or even ag­gres­sive be­hav­ior. In fact, it’s never an op­tion.

Jim Nel­son, who took over the North DuPage Spe­cial Ed­u­ca­tion Co­op­er­a­tive in July 2016, said he put in a main­te­nance re­quest on his first day to take the door off the seclu­sion room at Lin­coln Academy, a ther­a­peu­tic day school for stu­dents with emo­tional and be­hav­ioral dif­fi­cul­ties.

The year be­fore, the school in sub­ur­ban Roselle, which has an en­roll­ment of about 30, had placed stu­dents in the room 181 times, fed­eral data shows. The space now has a lava lamp, fuzzy pil­lows, a bean­bag and puz­zles, and stu­dents go there on their own when they need a break, Nel­son said.

He said he thinks all schools could get rid of seclu­sion and still be able to ed­u­cate stu­dents. Since end­ing the prac­tice, the North DuPage dis­trict has not seen an in­crease in the num­ber of stu­dents trans­ferred to more re­stric­tive schools, he said.

“We have out­bursts ev­ery day,” Nel­son said, but “you are now try­ing to fig­ure out what is the root of this out­burst: Is it a home is­sue, a bus is­sue, a peer is­sue, a re­la­tion­ship is­sue, en­vi­ron­ment or flu­o­res­cent lights? We have to prob­lem solve.”

Ad­min­is­tra­tors at schools that have closed their rooms say the cul­tural shift takes a lot of ef­fort and train­ing.

Elim­i­nat­ing seclu­sion gen­er­ally re­quires two steps: first, em­brac­ing the phi­los­o­phy that iso­lat­ing chil­dren is un­ac­cept­able; se­cond, teach­ing staff mem­bers how to iden­tify and ad­dress the causes of chal­leng­ing be­hav­ior be­fore it reaches a cri­sis point.

Zac Barry, who teaches a sys­tem based at Cor­nell Univer­sity called Ther­a­peu­tic Cri­sis In­ter­ven­tion, said staff of­ten get into a power strug­gle when stu­dents don’t obey, even over triv­ial mat­ters.

“Don’t ar­gue with them,” Barry said at a re­cent train­ing ses­sion in Peo­ria for peo­ple who work with chil­dren. “If they don’t want to sit down, don’t try to make them sit down!”

Among other strate­gies, TCI teaches that it’s more ef­fec­tive to back away from an up­set stu­dent, giv­ing him space, than to move in closer. Teach­ers are trained how to stand in a non­threat­en­ing way.

In Naperville School Dis­trict 203, the rooms for­merly used for iso­lated time­out are now sen­sory ar­eas stocked with weighted stuffed an­i­mals and sound-block­ing head­phones.

Chris­tine Igoe, who over­sees spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion in the 16,000-stu­dent dis­trict, said elim­i­nat­ing seclu­sion helps teach­ers and other staffers build re­la­tion­ships with stu­dents. With­out seclu­sion as an op­tion, she said, stu­dents and staff are less likely to be on high alert and anx­ious that sit­u­a­tions will es­ca­late.

“When you change your lens from ‘the stu­dent is mak­ing a choice’ to ‘the stu­dent is lack­ing a skill,’ ev­ery­thing changes,” Igoe said.

Kim San­ders, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the Grafton be­hav­ioral health net­work in Vir­ginia, which in­cludes pri­vate ther­a­peu­tic day schools, said schools there over­hauled their ap­proach af­ter em­ploy­ees were in­jured in con­fronta­tions with stu­dents so fre­quently that the dis­trict lost its work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion in­sur­ance.

“Our out­comes were not great,” she said. “It was hor­ri­ble for our staff morale.”

Since then, Grafton has de­vel­oped a be­hav­ior model called Ukeru that it now sells to other schools. It’s based on the idea that staff should at­tempt to com­fort, not con­trol, chil­dren. When a child be­comes vi­o­lent, the sys­tem sug­gests staff use cush­ioned shields to pro­tect them­selves.

“If seclu­sion or re­straint worked,” San­ders said, “wouldn’t you have to do it once or twice and you’d never have to do it again? It’s not work­ing.”

Lit­tle kids, locked away

Illi­nois schools se­cluded an 8-year-old boy who got up­set when he couldn’t ride the green bike dur­ing re­cess, a first grade boy who didn’t want to stop play­ing tag and a third grader who didn’t get the prize he

wanted.

Even preschool chil­dren spent time in iso­lated time­out, records show.

The ma­jor­ity of in­ci­dent re­ports re­viewed for this in­ves­ti­ga­tion did not spec­ify the grade of the child. But ProPublica Illi­nois and the Tribune iden­ti­fied more than 1,700 in­ci­dents when the stu­dent be­ing se­cluded was in fifth grade or younger. Hun­dreds of seclu­sions in­volved kids in preschool, kinder­garten or first grade.

One 7-year-old boy named Eli spent 1,652 min­utes — 27½ hours — in the “re­flec­tion rooms” as a first grader at a school called The Cen­ter in East Moline, school records show.

Still learn­ing to say some of his letters, Eli calls the spa­ces the “flec­tion” rooms. When his mom, Elisha, gen­tly cor­rects him, he snug­gles into her side. “It’s hard to re­ally say,” he ex­plained.

Eli was re­ferred to The Cen­ter, which of­fers a pro­gram for chil­dren with be­hav­ioral and emo­tional dis­abil­i­ties, when he was in kinder­garten. Records show he some­times had trou­ble cop­ing with the frus­tra­tions of el­e­men­tary school — not un­like many other Illi­nois chil­dren who were se­cluded af­ter out­bursts com­mon for their age.

When staff told him he couldn’t play with toys, he started to tip desks and chairs. Be­cause he didn’t want to come in­side from re­cess, he be­gan “flop­ping,” re­fused to walk and was “be­ing un­safe.” He “could not con­tinue to play nice” with blocks and started to hit and tried to run out of class. Some­times, he would kick staff or throw ob­jects around the room.

Ac­cord­ing to records from the school dis­trict and his fam­ily, Eli was se­cluded more than a dozen times in kinder­garten, be­gin­ning when he was 5. In first grade, it hap­pened 49 times. His long­est time­out was 115 min­utes.

“There is no rea­son my child should be in a time­out room for two hours,” said his mother, who asked that the fam­ily’s last name not be pub­lished.

Elisha pulled her son out of The Cen­ter at the end of last school year af­ter notic­ing bruises on his arm and a fin­ger­nail in­den­ta­tion that broke the skin. Records show Eli was phys­i­cally re­strained by three staff mem­bers and put in iso­lated time­out that day. He now at­tends a pri­vate school.

Schrader, di­rec­tor of the Black Hawk Area Spe­cial Ed­u­ca­tion Dis­trict, which op­er­ates The Cen­ter in north­west­ern Illi­nois, said staff at the school used the seclu­sion room “on a case-by-case ba­sis, in­ci­dent by in­ci­dent” to help stu­dents learn strate­gies to calm them­selves. She de­clined to com­ment on Eli’s case or that of any spe­cific child.

“We use it more as a way to help the stu­dent learn to deesca­late them­selves and con­stant su­per­vi­sion to main­tain their safety,” she said.

When a re­porter asked Eli whether the calm down rooms helped him calm down, he shook his head no.

How did he feel when in the room? “Mad,” he said qui­etly.

Movie day

The seclu­sion rooms in­side Braun Ed­u­ca­tional Cen­ter in Oak For­est look like so many oth­ers across Illi­nois: blue pad­ding along the walls, a small win­dow where staff can look in. The red but­ton out­side that locks the door. A mir­ror in the up­per cor­ner to give a fuller view.

In one room, three long tear marks were vis­i­ble in the pad­ding of the door — left there, the prin­ci­pal said, by a stu­dent with autism.

About 150 el­e­men­tary through high school stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties at­tend pro­grams at Braun, which is op­er­ated by the South­west Cook County Co­op­er­a­tive As­so­ci­a­tion for Spe­cial Ed­u­ca­tion. Gi­neen O’Neil, the co-op’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, de­scribed many as trou­bled and chal­leng­ing; some are home­less, abuse drugs, get preg­nant or strug­gle with men­tal ill­ness, she said. Some, she said, “run the streets” at night.

“Peo­ple have to re­al­ize they get ed­u­cated some­where, and this is where it is,” O’Neil said.

Over 1½ school years, staffers iso­lated stu­dents nearly 500 times. O’Neil said stu­dents are not se­cluded as pun­ish­ment.

But the Tribune/ProPublica Illi­nois anal­y­sis found that in 46% of seclu­sions at Braun, staff doc­u­mented no safety rea­son that pre­ceded the iso­la­tion. O’Neil said some of these in­ci­dents could have in­volved a safety is­sue de­spite the lack of doc­u­men­ta­tion, but she also de­scribed the find­ings as “dis­turb­ing” and or­dered a re­view of prac­tices.

“You are mak­ing 1,000 judg­ment calls a day, you know what I mean?” O’Neil said. “You don’t al­ways call them right.”

On a re­cent Fri­day af­ter­noon, it was quiet in the halls. Most of the chil­dren had gath­ered to watch a movie and eat pop­corn. They had earned the re­ward for good be­hav­ior.

But one boy didn’t qual­ify — and he was mad. The prin­ci­pal, Kris­tine Jones, said that af­ter the rest of his class left for the movie, he shouted: “This place sucks. I’m leav­ing.”

He didn’t ac­tu­ally leave. But the boy was a “run­ner” when up­set, Jones said, and they wanted to “pre-cor­rect” his be­hav­ior.

So they took him to an iso­la­tion room. Jen­nifer Smith Richards is a Tribune re­porter. Jodi S. Co­hen is a re­porter for ProPublica Illi­nois, and Lakei­dra Chavis is a reporting fel­low for ProPublica Illi­nois. Zbig­niew Bz­dak is a Tribune pho­tog­ra­pher.

Ad­di­tional data anal­y­sis by Haru Co­ryne and data reporting by Kaarin Tisue, Ni­cole Stock, Brenda Me­d­ina and David Eads. Ad­di­tional re­search by Doris Burke. To con­tact re­porters or share a tip, email seclu­sion@propublica.org.

Eli’s mother, Elisha, pulled him out of The Cen­ter af­ter notic­ing bruises on his arm.

Gabriel, who does not speak but can sign a few words, hugs his mother, Laura My­ers, be­fore bed­time in their Cen­tralia home.

Car­son Sieg­meier, a se­cond grade stu­dent with autism, plays with fam­ily cat Snow­ball. His mother ob­tained a doc­tor’s note to pre­vent him from be­ing put in iso­lated time­out.

CHICAGO TRIBUNE

A stu­dent spent about 40 min­utes in seclu­sion af­ter she re­fused to sit at a desk. She wrote sen­tences promis­ing to obey next time: SOURCE: East­ern Illi­nois Area Spe­cial Ed­u­ca­tion

A 7-year-old girl who was se­cluded af­ter she “threw a fit” in­di­cated she was feel­ing sad, an­gry and fright­ened:

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