Schools Under Fire for Isolation Room Punishment Tactics

Elise Solé
An isolation room at Mint Valley Elementary School in Longview, WA (Photo: KATU)
An isolation room at Mint Valley Elementary School in Longview, WA (Photo: KATU)

Parents are growing increasingly outraged over an unusual method some schools are using to discipline kids. The policy involves the use of isolation rooms (aka “scream rooms”), closet-sized rooms that children, often those with special needs, are placed in for a cooling-off period, where they can be left unmonitored for up to several hours at a time without bathroom breaks.

The latest school district to come under fire for reportedly employing such punishment tactics is Bellevue School District in Washington state. According to a report that aired on local news affiliate Q13Fox, the state wants schools to implement policies for restraints and isolation techniques, however parents are concerned that the Bellevue terms are too vague and allow room for other forms of punishment such as handcuffs, pepper spray, and even Tasers. Per Washington state rules, isolation rooms can only be used if there is a clear danger to the child or other students, but the Bellevue policy also allows use if there is unpredicted, spontaneous misbehavior.

“No teachers in our school district use Tasers or chemical sprays on special needs students,” Bellevue School Board President Steve McConnell tells Yahoo Shine, who adds that the district calls the rooms  'safe rooms’ and only uses them as a last-resort intervention in extreme scenarios. (The school's current policy can be found on the school district's website.) Those instances include when the child is posing immediate danger to himself or herself and other students, is severely disrupting the class, or damaging school property. If a child is placed in the room – which, says McConnell, would be for no more than 15 minutes – his or her parents are verbally notified within 24 hours and receive a letter documenting the occurence within five days of the incident.

“Putting in language like this will only give permission to some staff members to just do what’s convenient and not right,” one unnamed mother told the school board earlier this month, according to Q13Fox. She, along with other parents, expressed concern that the rooms were “traumatizing.” As a result of the meeting, the school board agreed to discuss the issue further over the summer before coming to a decision in the fall.

However, plenty of other school districts have yet to make progress, despite a 2012 ABC News investigation, which found that thousands of autistic and disabled children around the country have been injured and dozens have died due to the lack of  national standards for restraint punishment and as a result of being restrained by poorly trained teachers. According to the report, only 30 states have laws governing the use of restraint and many "have loopholes that allow restraint to be used with little limitation." The investigation led to the Department of Education's issuing of guidelines for the use of restraints in U.S. schools, which state, “The use of restraint and seclusion can have very serious consequences, including, most tragically, death. Furthermore, there continues to be no evidence that using restraint or seclusion is effective in reducing the occurrence of the problem behaviors that frequently precipitate the use of such techniques.”

Some notable cases: In 2012, a mother of a student at Mint Valley Elementary School in Washington snapped a photo of the school's isolation room located in a storage area with two peepholes and no chairs and posted it on Facebook where it was shared about 100 times. She claimed that kids were placed inside for offenses such as crying and tapping on their desks. In April 2013, an Arizona mother said her son was held in the room 17 different times (The school claims it was only three.) with no bathroom breaks. And last December, two New York City parents of KIPP Star Washington Heights Elementary School students reported that their children suffered anxiety attacks after being placed in the padded rooms with only a single lightbulb, a floor mat, and a 2--by-3 foot window. In that case, a 5-year-old boy was rushed to the hospital after he panicked and wet himself and a first grader became too scared to return to school. Perhaps the most chilling case involved a 13-year-old boy at a special education school in Georgia who hung himself inside an isolation room in 2004.

"There is a difference between a 'time out' and seclusion," Kelly Vaillancourt, a representative from the National Association of School Psychologists, tells Yahoo Shine. "Some schools have 'cool out corners,' carpeted areas of a classroom where kids can rest but there is no door and it's not a punishment, per se. There are also open tents that a child can sit in if he or she wants privacy. However, we don't advocate the use of seclusion or isolation rooms or any behavorial strategy that involves forcibly restraining a child in a confined place."

Vaillancourt adds that there are circumstances in which kids who pose a threat to themselves or others should be physically restrained, but only by trained staff who hold the child in place. "That's very different than the cases we've heard where teachers sit on children or strap them to chairs," she says. "One of the problems is that not all states have restraint laws but there is ongoing legislation that aims to ban restraint and isolation."

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