The Quiet Rooms
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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.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.
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: