Some Ohio children with disabilities are regularly isolated in cell-like rooms, closets or old offices when they behave badly.
The rooms are supposed to be used to calm or restrain children who become violent. But an investigation by StateImpact Ohio and The Columbus Dispatch, found that they’re being misused.
Some teachers use them to punish children. Many times, placing children in the rooms is a convenience for frustrated employees.
And there is little evidence that seclusion helps children but plenty of evidence that it hurts them.
StateImpact Ohio and The Dispatch requested records from 100 districts and charter schools across the state selected to represent a variety of school types and found that 39 set aside rooms to isolate children. Only a handful had rules about how long students should be in them or why, leaving the decision to school employees.
This report is a collaborative effort by The Columbus Dispatch and StateImpact Ohio. See more at Dispatch.com and on the StateImpact Ohio website.
Some teachers say that seclusion rooms are effective tools when used properly.
No law governs seclusion rooms, and the Ohio Department of Education has provided little guidance and virtually no oversight to schools. The department has no idea which districts have seclusion rooms because it has not asked. It does not know how often vulnerable children are locked alone in rooms and does not intend to tell schools to stop doing it.
Sometimes, even parents don’t know when it happens to their children.
“They never mentioned seclusion rooms. I don’t think they ever wanted anyone to know they existed,” said Rosemary Crum, whose son is an adult now and graduated from Pickerington schools. She learned of her son’s seclusion when another mother told her.
“I worry that there are other kids it’s happening to, too,” Crum said.
Several districts surveyed for this report refused to say whether they seclude special-needs children, but others say they need seclusion rooms to keep everyone safe at school. Advocates for the disabled argue that the practice is primitive and traumatic.
“Would I like to send my 6-year-old to school and find out they’ve been locked in a dark room by themselves for five hours? Would we find that acceptable? Absolutely not. There would be national outrage if this was happening to kids without disabilities,” said Barb Trader, the executive director of TASH, a Washington, D.C.-based group that pushes to end seclusion.
How we reported the stories
StateImpact Ohio and The Dispatch sought public records related to the seclusion of students in 100 Ohio schools and districts. (You can use Ohio’s public records laws to do the same.)
They were selected to represent all regions of the state and different school types: rural, suburban, small city and large urban. Some were included because they had reported using seclusion to the federal government or had larger populations of students with special needs.
All schools and districts were asked to provide records of the locations of seclusion or time-out rooms, copies of policies that govern the use of the rooms, logs kept of room use or incidents, communication to parents about seclusion rooms and records of staff training related to restraint or seclusion.
Reporters Jennifer Smith Richards, Molly Bloom and Ida Lieszkovszky analyzed hundreds of pages of documents, conducted dozens of interviews and visited seclusion and time-out rooms throughout the state.
Parents in Ohio and nationally who say their children have been traumatized by seclusion in schools have begged for an end to the practice for years.
Karen Boddie pleaded with officials at the Ohio Department of Education to step in when her son was locked alone in Columbus’ Clearbrook Middle School’s seclusion room and denied lunch. The state told Columbus to stop withholding food. It said nothing of the district’s seclusion practices.
“Sometimes, he’d be left in there from the time school started to the time school ended,” she said.
Boddie took him out of school to be tutored at home.
“He had a nervous breakdown. He was so broken I had to climb into the shower and hold him up,” she said. “For 3 1/2 years, he had no socialization skills.”
But used properly, some teachers say, seclusion rooms can help.
Amy Dorn, a teacher in Middletown in southwestern Ohio, remembers the day a student fled her classroom, flung her into a brick wall and threw another teacher into lockers. This was before her classroom had an actual seclusion room, and the entire school was locked down as the student bloodied his hands against the walls and doors.
“Everyone’s education was pretty much interrupted that day,” Dorn said.
Sasheen Phillips, who heads the special-education division at the state education department, said the agency believes in “local control” and would investigate abuse or misuse of seclusion rooms only if someone complained.
While the department has never defined how to appropriately use seclusion and doesn’t know which schools have seclusion rooms, the state superintendent said seclusion should only be used in emergency situations.
“The Ohio Department of Education condemns any inappropriate use of seclusion rooms,” said State Superintendent Stan Heffner.
The department is writing a policy to regulate some aspects of seclusion rooms but not ban them. Phillips expects the policy to be approved by March 2013, five years after the department started writing it.
“There’s no way to gauge the breadth of the problem. It’s hidden from view,” said Sue Tobin, the chief legal counsel for Ohio Legal Rights Service, a state agency that works to protect people with disabilities.
The 100 public-school entities surveyed by StateImpact Ohio and The Dispatch are a small slice; there are more than 600 school districts in the state and hundreds more charter schools.
Not all of the 39 districts that said they have seclusion rooms prevent students from leaving or lock students in.
For the first time last year, the U.S. Department of Education asked many districts to report how often they used seclusion in which children were enclosed and prevented from leaving, and on whom. In Ohio, 41 of the 289 districts surveyed by the federal agency said they had secluded students 4,236 times. In more than 60 percent of cases, disabled children were those being secluded.
Districts’ logs and incident reports provided to The Dispatch and StateImpact Ohio show that children with special needs — often emotional or behavioral disorders — regularly are placed in seclusion rooms (often alone) for minor infractions. There were very few instances in which children were being violent or unsafe, according to those documents. In Ohio schools in the past two years, children found themselves in isolation for throwing pencils or papers, swearing, complaining, refusing to do school work or being rude.
How long the students are left in the rooms varies from minutes to hours. Some children are isolated several times a day for several days a week.
In a single month last year in a Youngstown school, students were sent to “time-out” 42 times. Documents show that children were being physically aggressive — hitting a staff member, throwing something or attacking another student — in only four of those incidents.
A recent investigation in Columbus schools found that special-needs aides were locking children in rooms for reasons that had nothing to do with safety.
At Avon Lake schools near Cleveland last year, a boy with special needs and behavior problems was sent to a “de-escalation area” 30 times over two months. He was secluded six times in a single day.
Only a handful of schools have policies that govern why and for how long children should be put in seclusion rooms.
In Akron, the limit is 12 minutes, and there can never be a closed door. The policy specifies that isolation isn’t supposed to be used to punish students or “as an act of retribution or respite for the teachers.”
“If you don’t go ahead and say what the pitfall potentially might be, people fall into the pit,” said Karen Liddell-Anderson, who oversees special education in the Akron district.
Debating the Issue
When Brendon Spencer was in fifth grade, he spent a lot of time shut in a small room next to the counselor’s office.
Brendon, now 14, has Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD and a mood disorder. He says kids at the Crestwood school district in northeastern Ohio teased him and attacked him, and he reacted, sometimes physically. His teacher’s response, he said, was to put him in a room the district doesn’t call a seclusion room, but that is sometimes used to seclude children.
“They’d shut the lights off, and they’d put a teacher in there and make you have your head down, and it just made me feel like I was alone in darkness forever,” Brendon said.
He eventually transferred to a charter school focused on children with special needs that does not use seclusion rooms.
But seclusion rooms do take children out of the classroom, where they could be learning. And teachers and students can be injured forcing a struggling child into a seclusion room.
“There are a lot better ways to change children’s behaviors that do not have the same risks associated with these rooms,” Ryan said.
Research shows that children have committed suicide, hurt themselves and even died inside seclusion rooms.
Many educators say seclusion rooms should be used only when children are at risk of hurting themselves or others.
But Ryan’s 2007 study of a Minnesota school for children with special needs found that 97 percent of incidents of seclusion had nothing to do with physical aggression. One-third of the incidents happened because a student didn’t follow a staff member’s directions.
A 2012 American Association of School Administrators national survey of about 400 school superintendents found that nearly 20 percent thought seclusion was a good way to punish children.
Seclusion rooms sound “like something from the 1950s,” said Cincinnati student services director Markay Winston. Cincinnati schools haven’t used them for at least 10 years, she said.
And many other Ohio schools, including many with special programs for children with behavioral disorders, don’t use seclusion rooms. Instead, teachers and aides learn how to anticipate children’s misbehavior and teach the right behavior.
Still, experts say the use of seclusion rooms in schools in Ohio and nationally has grown as changes in federal law have integrated more children with special needs into schools with teachers who have little training in handling their behavior.
Dorn, the teacher in Middletown, could see that one of her students with a behavioral disorder was becoming frustrated with his math worksheet. But even she wasn’t ready for what happened next:
He knocked over his desk, kicked a chair and threw a book at another child so hard that, if the child hadn’t ducked, he would have been hurt. But this time, Dorn, had a seclusion room. She and her aides emptied the classroom and took the boy there. The boy spent about 10 minutes there “screaming and cussing” and then calmed down and came back to class.
Before she had a time-out room near her classroom, Dorn said, “more of my kids were sent home because there was nothing I could do.”
Some teachers and school leaders say seclusion rooms allow children with behavioral disorders who scream, curse, spit or physically lash out at others to have a chance at getting the same education as their peers.
Carol Hare, the special-education supervisor at the Ohio Valley Educational Service Center, said she works with teachers in the Marietta area in eastern Ohio to reduce the use of the rooms, but she has come to see their value.
“When I started in my current position, I still believed that one should never have to restrain or use quiet rooms. But then I met the kids,” Hare said.
The alternatives, proponents say, are sending children home in the middle of the school day or calling the police.
That’s what used to happen at the 1,300-student Madison Plains school district in central Ohio before school staff turned an unused music practice room into a “quiet room” last school year, placing padding on the floor and along the walls.
Madison-Plains Director of Student Services Trish Passwaters said she hasn’t heard any parents complain about the room. She received more complaints in the past from parents who were called to pick up their kids early from school. And putting a child with a behavioral disorder into the juvenile justice system is rarely preferable to treating him or her at home.
Still, parents whose children have been secluded say that the memories of isolation and fear last.
“It was tiny. It had an angle to it, kind of a triangle. It had a window to it and stunk of urine,” said one parent, describing the space her son was secluded in at school. She asked not to be named, because she fears that the school will retaliate against her son.
Rosemary Crum recalled her son’s time at Pickerington schools.
“Secluding him actually started in third or fourth grade. That was not for long periods of time; it was a time-out room for maybe an hour or two. When he got to high school is when it really got to be a bad situation,” she said of her son, now grown.
“You can imagine the anger that built in this child,” Crum said. “This is something that has bothered me ever since then: If they hadn’t done this seclusion thing …”
StateImpact Ohio reporter Ida Lieszkovszky contributed to this report.
SLIDESHOW: Seclusion Rooms in Ohio Schools
Courtney Hergesheimer / The Columbus Dispatch permalink
Ohio Valley Educational Service Center early childhood and special education supervisor Carol Hare stands in a seclusion room in an ESC facility for children with emotional disturbance, as viewed through a camera monitoring system.