The Columbus school district has used its seclusion rooms — some as small as a closet, some reeking of urine or covered in spit — as a place to punish children with special needs, a state investigation has found.
Some schools continue to use a type of physical restraint so dangerous that is banned in Ohio because it can kill children, the investigation found.
Investigators found that staff isn’t properly trained.
Some parents thought their special-needs children were getting therapy when they actually were spending time in seclusion rooms.
And even though the district has a policy that the rooms are only for “crisis situations,” investigators said they commonly are used as punishment when students are noncompliant or disrespectful.
The investigation, conducted by the Ohio Legal Rights Service, a state agency that works to protect people with disabilities, began in December 2011 when the mother of an autistic boy complained that he was traumatized inside a room at Eastmoor Academy, where he spent hours at a time, stripped naked, lay in his own urine and developed a staph infection.
Seclusion rooms — despised by many special-needs advocates but considered necessary by some educators — are meant to be a place for students to calm down if they become a physical danger to others at school. They are often small, windowless spaces that are stripped of furniture. Many, including the ones in Columbus, have doors to keep children inside.
The state agency’s findings echo other reports about seclusion rooms in Columbus and other Ohio districts.
In August, a joint investigation by The Columbus Dispatch and StateImpact Ohio found that many districts across Ohio misuse seclusion. “Locked Away” found that in many schools, children were locked in closets, cell-like rooms or old offices even when they weren’t posing a risk to anyone.
And in June, the Columbus school district found that two employees at Beatty Park Elementary, a school for children with behavior and emotional disabilities, had injured two studentsand placed them in seclusion rooms for no acceptable reason. Both were fired.
“These rooms are dangerous, they’re traumatizing, they’re not effective in changing behaviors,” said Sue Tobin, chief legal counsel for the Legal Rights agency.
The Legal Rights agency wants the district to stop using seclusion and dangerous restraint and to begin notifying parents of incidents right away. The district says it plans to respond to the agency by the deadline, which is Oct. 15, but disagrees with the findings of the investigation.
A spokesman also pointed out that a state policy is in the works that will permit the use of seclusion in instances where students could physical harm themselves or others. The use of seclusion rooms in schools is unregulated.
“We believe that it doesn’t fully represent all of the facts as we know them. In particular, we provided the OLRS 244 documents regarding 80 students. However, the report findings are based on only three students,” Columbus schools spokesman Jeff Warner said.
The report cites interviews with three students, but all 80 cases and all documents were reviewed in order to reach findings, Tobin said. During its investigation, the agency sued the district in federal court to compel it to hand over records related to the use of the rooms. The district later provided the records and the suit was dropped.
–Columbus schools spokesman Jeff Warner
The Columbus school district has seclusion rooms in 10 of its 116 school buildings; another school had rooms, too, but dismantled them in April.
The rooms look different at each school. Some have metal doors with foot latches to lock students inside. Some had peepholes in the door. A room at Clearbrook Middle School, which works exclusively with students who have behavior and emotional disorders, has a drain in the floor.
Columbus calls the rooms “respite rooms” or “processing rooms.”
“Respite is where you go to rest, to get a break, not because you’re being punished and there’s nothing in there except the walls. There’s no sensory materials, there’s no music, there’s no educational tools or instructional tools,” Tobin said. “It’s solitary confinement.”
Barb Trader, executive director of disability advocacy group TASH, said the report’s findings were not a surprise to her.
“It repeated the same thing that we’ve been hearing over and over: Restraint and seclusion are being used for convenience and punishment rather than for kids who are truly dangerous … you’d think school districts would have strict policies about the appropriateness of their use,” Trader said.
In the report, the agency also urges the Ohio Department of Education to ban seclusion. The department doesn’t plan to, though it is working on the rules that would govern when schools can use seclusion and restraint. Spokesman John Charlton said the rules should be adopted in March.
Columbus City Schools Use of Seclusion Rooms