Morgan Linnabary was eight years old when he was sent to a special school for children with behavior problems.
At the new school, when he mouthed off to teachers or got upset, he was sent from his classroom to the isolation room: a plywood box inside a separate room down the hall.
It happened dozens of times, Morgan said.
“It’s like ‘No, no just give me some time to calm down.’ And [they’d be] like, ‘No you’re going to isolation,’” he said. “They would not listen to your pleas of ‘I can calm down if you give me some time.’”
Officials at Morgan’s old school in Defiance County, Ohio didn’t return calls seeking comment.
But that’s not how seclusion rooms are supposed to be used. Experts say children are only supposed to be shut in the rooms if they’re a danger to themselves or others.
The use of seclusion rooms, enclosed spaces that are supposed to be used to calm or restrain children who become violent, has come under scrutiny in the past year after a joint investigation by the Columbus Dispatch and StateImpact Ohio found school staff instead sometimes use the rooms to punish children.
An investigation by The Columbus Dispatch and StateImpact Ohio looking at the use of seclusion rooms in ohio schools.
Columbus Dispatch: Secrecy to shroud school seclusion, restraint use under new state rules
The Ohio state Board of Education is set to vote for the first time on Tuesday on a new state policy on the use of seclusion and restraint in Ohio schools. The state does not currently regulate the use of seclusion rooms in Ohio schools.
If the state board approves the new policy, it would take effect starting next school year.
What’s in the Policy
The new proposed state policy does not ban the use of seclusion and restraint in schools.
It explicitly says seclusion can only be used in emergencies. It requires school staff to get training in teaching positive behaviors.
But it has some loopholes.
The new policy would only apply to traditional public schools – not charter schools.
And it could prevent the public from knowing whether schools are using seclusion and restraint properly.
When a student is put in a seclusion room or is restrained by staff, schools would have to record it in that student’s file. But those records would be confidential.
And the policy does not require schools to track how often they seclude or restrain students, or the reasons why.
School Staff Waiting
Lee Smith, a principal at Louisville Elementary School in northeast Ohio, is one of the school administrators waiting to see the final result of state policy discussions.
Smith doesn’t use the term seclusion room.
His school has what he calls sensory rooms. The rooms have padded walls, curtained windows, beanbag chairs on the floor and slings that children can use as hammocks.
The rooms do have doors and are used primarily for children with special needs.
Smith said the rooms are used as refuges for students who need a private place to calm down or soothe themselves. But Smith doesn’t track how often the rooms are used, or how.
Still, Smith said his teachers know that simple misbehavior is not a reason to restrain or seclude a child.
“Period, end of discussion. We’re not even going down that path. If they’re shuffling their little feet down the hallway and they’re turning around screaming at you or whatever—I don’t care. Our staff understands that mentality,” he said.
And Smith said his teachers try not to get to the point of having to lay hands on a student. He said they get to know their kids, what sets them off and what calms them down.
“If I escalate up, then they’re going to escalate up. If I escalate up, he’s going to go higher,” he said.
“And that’s not a good thing.”
Some educators and parents say reports of children forced into seclusion rooms for not following directions or other non-violent actions were a surprise to them.
But they’re not necessarily opposed to regulating the rooms’ use.
Amy Jones’ son Matthew, who has an autism-spectrum disorder, was sent or taken to a seclusion room multiple times while in elementary grades when he kicked or hit others or tried to run out of the building in his Warren County school.
Matthew didn’t like being in the seclusion room.
But the alternative was calling his mother to pick him up, taking him out of school for the day. And over time, and with intensive lessons about how to better express his emotions, Matthew stopped lashing out and running away, his mother said.
“I think it’s a good idea to regulate seclusion,” she said. “But there have to be parameters and guidelines.”
Louisville, Ohio teacher Andrea Unklesbay, who teaches kindergarteners and first graders with multiple disabilities, also said having standard rules and guidelines for the use of seclusion and restraint in schools might be helpful–as long as they didn’t ban the practices outright.
“Maybe it would be good for the whole state be on the same page about that,” she said.
Molly Bloom / StateImpact Ohio permalink
The sensory room at Louisville Elementary School was purpose-built.