Carolyn Harris
December 29, 2008

  A seclusion room in a Murrayville, Georgia, school.

In a recent shocking expose CNN described the suicide of a 13-year-old boy in Georgia in a “seclusion room.” These 3′ by 4′ prison-like rooms are used across the United States, with little state guidelines for their use. Innocuous sounding titles are used like “chill room” and “time out room” but they are really solitary confinement cells “used for punishing unruly children.” Even elementary school children are not exempt.

These are the same type of solitary confinement cells that inmates in prison are put into when they disbehave, but they are adults, not little school children. The irony is that if any parent were to lock their child inside a small closet, they would be considered by the state’s Child Protective Services to be abusing the child, but not so the schools.

The practice of isolating students in maximum-security like cells is increasingly, but not exclusively, used for special education and disabled students. Many are completely traumatized by this experience, as would any adult. Instead of calming practices, employing de-escalation measures or sending them to a counselor, teachers and administrators excuse themselves by saying this is a “last resort,” but the evidence does not support that assertion.

One school district in Pennsylvania, through their attorney, blatantly lied about the existence and use of these confinement rooms in an “intermediate elementary school.” When confronted at a subsequent school board meeting, they contradicted the letter their attorney wrote on that subject to Mike Medici, an advoacte who had asked the district to clarifiy its policy.

CNN reports that “Dr. Veronica Garcia, New Mexico’s education secretary, said her state had found more sophisticated and better ways to solve behavior problems. Garcia, whose brother is autistic, said, ‘The idea of confining a child in a room repeatedly and as punishment, that’s an ethics violation I would never tolerate.’ But researchers say that the rooms, in some cases, are being misused and that children are suffering.” The expose gives other examples of abuses in schools.

Not surprisingly, being put into a solitary confinement cell makes school children feel like prisoners. According to Chicago’s CBS2, “Caleb Londoff is haunted by the time-out room inside MacNeal School in Westchester. ‘They [students] can be put in there for like five days straight, and that’s not school — that’s just basically jail,’ he said.” Repeatedly being relegated to solitary confinement, sometimes for three to six hours at a time and sometimes daily, can cause nightmares, fear, panic, embarrassment, humiliation, powerlessness, hopelessness, and lack of trust towards officials, and it’s not hard to see why. CBS2 states “Schools are not supposed to use time-out as punishment. But records from Caleb’s school show he was repeatedly locked in time-out or put in isolation because of offenses such as talking under his breath, arguing about a gym score, not saying hello or not doing his work. He would be locked up for hours — even as long as six hours.” After being away from his former school for two years, Caleb’s mother reports his grades improving from failing to getting A’s and B’s.

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Jonathan King, the little boy who killed himself in Georgia, was described by his parents as completely different than he was portrayed in his school records: “one who liked to kick and punch his classmates.” Since kindergarten he had been diagnosed with severe depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to his parents. But his father remembers him as a boy who sange in the church choir and was happy when he did so.”He was a hugger, liked to go fishing with me and run after me saying, ‘Daddy, when are we going to the lake?’ ”

This was not the first child to die. While there are no firm numbers on students who commit suicide in solitary confinement cells, there are others have been killed through “aversive behavioral intervention.” An autistic Canadian boy was actually killed in school in June 2008. Gabriel Poiret, a 53-pound 9-year old was wrapped in a 40-pound blanket, wrapped four times around his tiny little body. The coroner ruled suffocation as the cause of death. Two autistic students in a Michigan public school died from “being held on the ground in so-called prone restraint.” There are numerous lawsuits brought by parents around the country whose children have been abused in schools with heavy-handed measures, some coming home with bruises, unwilling and sometimes not able to verbalize the horrors that occurred at school.

According to federal law, educators must make an individual education plan for students with disabilities that explicitly details the methods educators may use to stop any bad behavior. But parents don’t always understand what the “conditional procedures” like “time out” mean. Many are completely shocked that their child is being put into prison-like cells for sometimes hours on end. One mother, who didn’t want to be named, told WSMV4 in Tennessee that had she known, she would never have approved it.

Educators say that with the increase in autism and other developmental and pyschological problems, they face an uphill battle dealing with students that are disruptive, disrespectful and can become aggressive or violent. They point to the effort to “streamline” students with emotional or learning and other disabilities in with regular classes presents a serious difficulty for the teachers. The New York Times reported that the result of that integration “is schools’ increasing use of precisely the sort of practices families hoped to avoid by steering clear of institutionalized settings: takedowns, isolation rooms, restraining chairs with straps, and worse.”

Tim Miller, who has a form of autism called Asperber’s Syndrome, is one of many children who faced the “aversive intervention” in the form of being held prone on the floor for twenty minutes straight. John Miller, a podiatrist in Allegany, N.Y., said about his son, then 12, “What Tim eventually said was that he didn’t want to go to school because he thought the school was trying to kill him.” His parents are suing the school district for partially for additional therapy needed as a result of their son’s restraint. Away from the school where he was restrained, he has successfully completed a number of mainstream class with no incidents whatsoever.

“Education specialists say schools are increasingly using isolation rooms to discipline students with behavioral disorders, and say the time-outs are probably doing more harm than good. ‘It really is a form of abuse,’ said Ken Merrell, head of the Department for Special Education and Clinical Sciences at the University of Oregon, who said the rooms may be unsafe.” Mr. and Mrs. King know that all too well.

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