Eye on Education

Locked Away: Students Say Seclusion Doesn’t Help

Ida Lieszkovszky / StateImpact Ohio

Brendon Spencer says his old public school, Crestwood Elementary in Mantua, used a spare office as an impromptu seclusion room. He says being ignored by teachers and taken out of class to "cool down" only made him more upset.

Ohio students are regularly taken out of class and put into separate rooms, known as seclusion rooms.

Educators and special needs advocates alike agree that these rooms should only be used when a child is in danger of hurting themselves or others around them, but an investigation by StateImpact Ohio and The Columbus Dispatch found that schools often use these rooms as a form of discipline.


Eighth grader Brendon Spencer says he was secluded at Crestwood Elementary in Mantua, a small town about an hour southeast of Cleveland, several times a year.

He has ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome, anxiety and mood disorders. His classmates would bully him, and that would send him in a rage, kicking and hitting things around him.

First he’d be told to stand in the hallway, but if he didn’t calm down, he’d be sent into an old office where he says his teachers would shut the lights off and not talk to him.

“It just made me feel like I was alone in darkness forever,” Brendon says.

Ida Lieszkovszky / StateImpact Ohio

Brooke Pellets, the pupil services director at Crestwood Elementary says they had no way of knowing secluding Brendon upset him. Plus, she says, since they just used an old office, they don't consider it a seclusion room.

By definition, special education experts define any place where a student is left alone, without any other classmates, and not allowed to leave, as a seclusion room.

But the school denies having a seclusion room.

“I guess if it was just a room that was used strictly for seclusion for students then there would have to be some kind of monitoring going on there,” says Brooke Pellets, director of pupil services at Crestwood Elementary. “But if it’s just a place that we use for students to calm down or for students to have a place to sit while they’re waiting to see the principal, then that’s different.”

The situation points to how much confusion there has been about seclusion rooms and their use in Ohio. No one collects statewide data on the use of these rooms.

But the investigation by StateImpact Ohio and The Columbus Dispatch found that nearly 40 percent of the 100 districts surveyed have rooms used to isolate children, and there’s no guarantee those children are safe.

Seclusion By Any Name

Courtney Hergesheimer / The Columbus Dispatch

The "time-out room" at Logan-Hocking Local School District's Union Furnace Elementary School.

No two seclusion rooms are the same. Some are old offices, or closets, others are specially designed rooms with padded walls and foot locks. Some are called “therapy rooms,” “time-out rooms,” or “scream rooms.”

No matter what they look like or what they’re called, they’re used for the same thing: to lock away students, mostly those with special needs.

Some teachers insist they need these rooms to deal with difficult students.

“It’s my last resort,” says Roger Nott, the intervention specialist at Logan-Hocking Local School in central Ohio. He says he uses his room a couple times a week for anywhere from a few minutes to an hour.

“I don’t want to go in there, because in society, there is no time-out room,” Nott says. “So you want them to be able to accept defeat sometimes and compromise and stuff. But I think it’s necessary in order to keep them safe, and keep everybody else going, and sometimes you just need a break.”

Advocates for special needs students aren’t buying that argument. They say shouldn’t need to use seclusion rooms, and instead should focus on teaching special-needs children self control.

“It’s not effective, it’s not research-based, it’s not peer-reviewed,” says Sue Tobin, a lawyer with the Ohio Legal Rights Service. “It’s hurting kids and it’s hurting people.”

The Columbus Dispatch

Among Tobin’s clients are parents who sued Columbus City Schools this past spring for allegedly locking their autistic son in a seclusion room and leaving him to lay in his own urine for hours.

“When parents send kids to school they expect them to be safe,” Tobin says. “And it should be shocking that kids aren’t safe.”

Ohio has no laws or rules or even guidelines about the use of seclusion rooms, something Tobin says needs to change “sooner rather than later.” Many other parts of school life are governed by all sorts of rules, like what kids can wear to school, what they are served for lunch, and even how they use social media.

Using Seclusion Rooms as Punishment

Some advocates, such as ARC of Ohio director Gary Tonks, say these rooms are often used as a disciplinary tool, instead of as a way to remove kids when they become dangerous.

“Supposedly you’re taking them away from reinforcement, but we’ve seen that it’s not being used in that manner, it’s more punishment,” Tonks says. “You do bad? You go in that locked room over there.”

Take, for example, Youngstown City Schools, where pubic records show that in one school, students were secluded 42 times in one month. Only four of those incidences were the result of violent behavior.

The Ohio Department of Education is working on a policy for public schools to follow when it comes to seclusion and physical restraint of students. policy won’t ban either practice, but characterizes their use as “a last resort measure to ensure the safety and health and well being of parties involved,” says Sasheen Phillips, who heads the department’s special education efforts,

That policy won’t be finalized until March of next year. Many advocates worry it will leave too much up to individual teachers and school officials.

OLRS’s Sue Tobin says she knows there are folks in the Department of Education familiar with positive intervention techniques and the needs of kids with disabilities. But, she says, “I don’t know how involved in the conversation they are.”

StateImpact Ohio reporter Molly Bloom and The Columbus Dispatch reporter Jennifer Smith Richards contributed to this report.



  • Teacher_Supporter

    I provide positive discipline training for school staff and am quite familiar with both the problem discussed in this story and the thinking in the field that can prevent such seclusion. Many excellent work has been done around this topic, such as Jane Nelsen’s work on Positive Discipline including the book Positive Time Out. Unfortunately, most teachers rarely receive the training and support however to cope with the ever-increasing population of special-needs students in their classroom. The schools highlighted are not at all unique in their struggle to cope with challenging behaviors.

  • Robyn

    I am a parent of 2 children with special needs. I have read this article and a few questions and comments came to mind and thought maybe someone may know the answer or be able to ask the question to the right people. As I read the article I have to ask in the situation of the child being picked on by his peers so he became upset and had to be taken to a seclusion room, Why don’t the kids who picked on him be removed? Why don’t all schools monitor each class by video so that when these situations happen it can be reviewed and taken care of properly. Because if not were telling the child with the disability that it’s ok for you to be picked on and some how it’s your fault so your going to be punished by being removed. And we are teaching the typical kids it’s ok to bully and they have authority and the administrartion and teachers do not. To me this is basic behavior management and seen through the lens of that it’s easy to see how we are enforcing the wrong behaviors. Because in the current way we are teaching the child with a disability fear and that may never be un taught but the result is a child who gets older and bigger and then becomes the aggressor. And sadly our society still condones the child who bullies, their treatment of others is almost always reinforced by their peers and now the teachers and the administration who don’t do anything to them for their bad behavior, because by doing nothing they are reinforcing their bullying of other students, silence speaks volumes. I realize teachers would have issues with being video taped but if their doing their job the best they know how they should have nothing to fear and can use the video as an effective way to learn their students response to their teaching and be able to make changes.

    • Robyn

      I would also like to say I applaud teachers for what they do. To manage and educate as many students as they have in a classroom today is a miracle in it’s self, and they need more support in the room, this issue cannot be blamed on teachers. Robyn

    • Morgan L.

      While I don’t know for sure how it is in public schools, I know that in the behavioral school I went to the teachers there did not care about the other side of the story. They saw what was going on right that moment and decided that what it looks like is what it is. I was often taken to “Isolation” because the teachers would not listen to what I had to say, or my reasons, or even that if they let me sit where I was for a bit I’d calm down. Luckily, our seclusion room was just very uncomfortable and not very easy on the eyes, instead of looking like a backwards mental institute cell.

  • Systemic Advocate

    This is what they are doing to our children some as young as 3 & 4 years old. This is abuse!
    “America’s Forgotten Children” Restraint & Seclusion Awareness Video

  • rcarr

    So, what do you suggest that teachers do when a child is in danger of hurting themselves or others?

    • Morgan L.

      Well, if that is the case, then yes, a room to put them in a probably a good choice.

      However, it should be
      A. Something that doesn’t feel like a punishment. Kids with mental problems should not be shoved in some kind of box because they can’t cope with something.
      B. Not used as a easy way to get kids who are acting up out of your hair. If all it is is a kid being a bit unruly or getting upset, then leave them alone for a bit. I know that when I’m left alone when angry I get over it quickly.

      The problem is the way it’s done and what it’s used for. These are kids who need to learn to function in society, not crazy people who need to be locked up. I should know, I have asperger’s syndrome and was sent to a “special school”.

  • A parent who cares

    The problem is a complex one for sure. It involves safety of the student in need of “time out,” the teacher in the classroom and the other students. My mother is a retired teacher, and received many bruises, and scratches from students identified with known disorders, and with histories of acting out in this way with little to no provocation. Her response was always one of calm and care, and in tandem with the intervention specialist assigned ONLY to that particular student, responded accordingly, which at times meant removing the student from the classroom for a “cooling off period;” something that was spelled out in the student’s IEP. These students had well-defined diagnosis and action plans in place to address the individual students needs and responses to said behaviors. From what I gathered from the article, these cases involve students who perhaps do not have these plans, or the school personnel are not using the “time out room” properly. These IEP’s and other similar action plans have been discussed prior to the beginning of the year in most cases, by a team consisting of school counselors and/or psychologists, teachers, administrators, intervention specialists and, most importantly, THE PARENTS OF THAT STUDENT; plans that in many cases are LEGALLY BINDING, therefore requiring the school to comply with the action plan set in that document. I realize that not all districts have the funding for individual intervention specialists, like those in my mother’s school, who are PROPERLY trained in specific disorders (like autism, and ADHD), who know how to redirect an agitated student, or they know when to remove them. One would think, in the wake of the violent actions in our schools seen on the news WAY too frequently, in addition to the laws set forth by the ADA, they would realize the need and find a way and QUICKLY! As a parent of a child with ADHD, who has been mercilessly bullied since she was in first grade (she is now in 6th grade), I am appalled at the way her school approaches, not only her requests for help, but the “wait and see” and “easiest way out” policies that seemingly govern the so called “bullying policy,” which is supposed to PROTECT her. Instead, I get phone calls telling me that she is in trouble because she “struck back” in some way (DUH! what do you expect her to do!), with a “talking to/ don’t do that anymore” to the people who bullied her for the 10th time this year! Oh, this school has a “ZERO TOLERANCE bullying policy in writing, in compliance with the state law. There is something inherently wrong with school districts that are supposed to integrate those students with special needs and will tell you how “integrated” they are with boastful propaganda, but in reality, do NOTHING to properly arm the teachers and other support personnel with the training and tools to deal with the various issues that come with some special needs students. The states have a responsibility not just to require schools to have written policies on these issues (like bullying and students with behavioral issues), but that is where the buck stops. Because of a combination of financial nooses, an ignorant and stereotypical view of various mental health issues in children, and under-trained staff, our children are being placed in situations that can be detrimental to their mental and emotional well-being, and in some cases, physical well-being, and then teachers and school officials are asked to “figure it out” regarding how to deal with these issues: all with a vague set of guidelines and requirements that are left up to the interpretation of persons who may not be fully qualified to interpret them…and we are shocked when a child does the unthinkable…Columbine..Newtown… when is is enough going to be really enough?

  • Stacy

    I teach at a school of special needs students. We have a sensory room, and it is NEVER used as a locked cell to put students in. If a child uses the room to calm down then they are always accompanied by an adult, and that adult is actively involved in the process of talking or soothing a student. We NEVER lock the door…We NEVER leave a child alone…that is risky for more than legal reasons. We care about our students. We do not want them to hurt themselves or others, and our goal is to keep them in the classroom whenever possible. If a student is becoming a danger to others and they are not able to calm down or deescalation techniques are not working, the first option is to remove the other students from the room before removing the student in crisis. This allows them to have a familiar space and less of an audience when they are trying to sort out their feelings. We also do not overwhelm them with to many adults trying to force them to “cool down”. We talk to the students, we work with them helping them problem solve and relate what would be socially acceptable ways to deal with concerns. Bullying is not tolerated, and we work very hard to discover the root of the issue with our kids. We are far from perfect, and sometimes getting the background information from students is very difficult, but we do try very hard. If on the rare occasion a student is restrained, or must be physically removed, we have trained staff to deal with it in a safe and productive manner. Parents are notified, behavior specialists are involved, and the student is NEVER left alone. It saddens me that this kind of treatment is actually happening in schools in this day and age. It gives us all a bad name as educators. I do think regulations need to be put in place for these rooms! I do understand the need for sensory rooms that are used properly and with trained staff. Society may not have a sensory room, but a child still learning the skills they will need to effectively cope in the “real” world may need a cool down place that accepts them for who they are, is safe, and comfortable. Just like any “typical” student, a special needs student must practice what they learn…even coping skills, until these skills are mastered, they will still have bad days. I would hate to see effective and safe sensory rooms be removed from schools and have no quiet place for our kids who need it disappear. The answer…training, regulations, and monitoring of these practices!

About StateImpact

StateImpact seeks to inform and engage local communities with broadcast and online news focused on how state government decisions affect your lives.
Learn More »