The Quiet Rooms
Children are being locked away, alone and terrified, in schools across Illinois. Often, it's against the law.
By Jennifer Smith Richards, Jodi S. Cohen and Lakeidra Chavis • Photography by Zbigniew Bzdak • November 19, 2019
Update: Following the publication of this investigation on Nov. 19, Illinois officials took swift action, including issuing an emergency order to halt the use of isolated timeouts in public schools and introducing legislation to institute a permanent ban. Read more about this impact here and here.
THE SPACES have gentle names: The reflection room. The cool-down room. The calming room. The quiet room.
But shut inside them, in public schools across the state, children as young as 5 wail for their parents, scream in anger and beg to be let out.
The students, most of them with disabilities, scratch the windows or tear at the padded walls. They throw their bodies against locked doors. They wet their pants. Some children spend hours inside these rooms, missing class time. Through it all, adults stay outside the door, writing down what happens.
In Illinois, it’s legal for school employees to seclude students in a separate space — to put them in “isolated timeout” — if the students pose a safety threat to themselves or others. Yet every school day, workers isolate children for reasons that violate the law, an investigation by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois has found.
Children were sent to isolation after refusing to do classwork, for swearing, for spilling milk, for throwing Legos. School employees use isolated timeout for convenience, out of frustration or as punishment, sometimes referring to it as “serving time.”
For this investigation, ProPublica Illinois and the Tribune obtained and analyzed thousands of detailed records that state law requires schools to create whenever they use seclusion. The resulting database documents more than 20,000 incidents from the 2017-18 school year and through early December 2018.
Of those, about 12,000 included enough detail to determine what prompted the timeout. In more than a third of these incidents, school workers documented no safety reason for the seclusion.
State education officials are unaware of these repeated violations because they do not monitor schools’ use of the practice. Parents, meanwhile, often are told little about what happens to their children.
The Tribune/ProPublica Illinois investigation, which also included more than 120 interviews with parents, children and school officials, provides the first in-depth examination of this practice in Illinois.
Because school employees observing the students often keep a moment-by-moment log, the records examined by reporters offer a rare view of what happens to children inside these rooms — often in their own words.
“Please someone respond to me. … I’m sorry I ripped the paper. I overreacted. … Please just let me out. Is anyone out there?”11:58 a.m., Jan. 11, 2018Fresh Start Treatment and Learning Center, Effingham
Without doubt, many of the children being secluded are challenging. Records show school employees struggling to deal with disruptive, even violent behavior, such as hitting, kicking and biting. Workers say that they have to use seclusion to keep everyone in the classroom safe and that the practice can help children learn how to calm themselves.
But disability advocates, special-education experts and administrators in school systems that have banned seclusion argue that the practice has no therapeutic or educational value, that it can traumatize children — and that there are better alternatives.
No federal law regulates the use of seclusion, and Congress has debated off and on for years whether that should change. Last fall, a bill was introduced that would prohibit seclusion in public schools that receive federal funding. A U.S. House committee held a hearing on the issue in January, but there’s been no movement since.
Nineteen states prohibit secluding children in locked rooms; four of them ban any type of seclusion. But Illinois continues to rely on the practice. The last time the U.S. Department of Education calculated state-level seclusion totals, in 2013-14, Illinois ranked No. 1.
“Please, please, please open the door. Please, I’ll be good. Open the door and I’ll be quiet.”2:09 p.m., Dec. 11, 2017elementary school, Mattoon
Although state law requires schools to file a detailed report each time they use seclusion, no one is required to read these accounts.
Several school district officials said they had not reviewed seclusion reports from their schools until reporters requested them. The Illinois State Board of Education does not collect any data on schools’ use of isolated timeout and has not updated guidelines since issuing them 20 years ago.
“Having a law that allows schools to do something that is so traumatic and dangerous to students without having some sort of meaningful oversight and monitoring is really, really troubling,” said Zena Naiditch, founder and leader of Equip for Equality, a disabilities watchdog group that helped write Illinois’ rules in 1999.
Informed of the investigation’s findings, the Illinois State Board of Education said it would issue guidance clarifying that seclusion should be used only in emergencies. Officials acknowledged they don’t monitor the use of isolated timeout and said they would need legislative action to do so.
“I’d rather die. You’re torturing me!”Dec. 17, 2018Central School, Springfield
This investigation, based on records from more than 100 districts, found seclusion was used in schools across every part of the state and by a range of employees, from teachers and aides to social workers and security personnel.
Some districts declined to provide records or gave incomplete information. Others wouldn’t answer even basic questions, saying the law did not require them to. Of more than 20 districts reporters asked to visit, only three said yes.
“Is this something that we’re ashamed of? It’s not our finest,” said Christan Schrader, director of the Black Hawk Area Special Education District in East Moline, which documented about 850 seclusions in the time period examined.
Schrader said she thinks her staff generally uses seclusion appropriately but acknowledged room for improvement. She met with reporters at the district’s administration building but wouldn’t let them see the seclusion rooms in the school across the parking lot.
“Nobody wants to talk about those things because it doesn’t reflect well,” she said.
“I’m Crying Alone”
ABOUT 20 MINUTES after he was put in one of his school’s Quiet Rooms — a 5-foot-square space made of plywood and cinder block — 9-year-old Jace Gill wet his pants.
An aide, watching from the doorway, wrote that down in a log, noting it was 10:53 a.m. on Feb. 1, 2018.
School aides had already taken away Jace’s shoes and both of his shirts. Jace then stripped off his wet pants, wiped them in the urine on the floor and sat down in the corner.
“I’m naked!” Jace yelled at 10:56 a.m.
Staff did not respond, the log shows, except to close the door “for privacy.”
By 11 a.m., Jace had also defecated and was smearing feces on the wall. No adults intervened, according to the log. They watched and took notes.
“Dancing in feces. Doing the twist,” staff wrote at 11:14 a.m., noting that the boy then started pacing back and forth.
“I need more clothes,” he called out.
“We know,” an aide answered.
Jace banged on the walls and tried to pry open the door. He sat against the wall, crying for his mom.
11:42 a.m.: “Let me out of here. I’m crying alone.”
The incident began that morning when Jace ripped up a math worksheet and went into the hallway, trying to leave school.
Jace was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 and began having epileptic seizures at 5. In first grade, officials at his local school referred him to the Kansas Treatment and Learning Center, a public school in east-central Illinois for children with emotional and behavioral disabilities.
Jace’s mother, Kylee Beaven, had heard about the Quiet Rooms at Kansas and had strong reservations about the concept, even before she took a school tour and stepped inside one. She recalls being told he would never be shut inside alone.
“I remember standing there and thinking, like, if I was a kid, how would I feel if I was in this room by myself?” she said.
In the years Jace spent at the Kansas TLC, he was placed in the Quiet Rooms again and again — at least 28 times in the 2017-18 school year.
Once, he was shut in after he pushed a book off his desk, said “I hate reading,” raised his fist and tried to leave the classroom. Another day, he refused to get out of his grandmother’s car at school drop-off, so a staff member took him straight to a Quiet Room.
After he went into a Quiet Room on Feb. 1, a staff member took notes every one or two minutes. The handwritten incident report stretches nine pages on lined paper.
Jace spent more than 80 minutes in the room before someone stepped inside to hand him a change of clothes, wipes to clean his feet and some lunch. A mental-health crisis worker arrived to talk to him, but he wouldn’t answer her questions.
He was not released until his grandmother — his “Gammy” — came to pick him up at 2:07 p.m.
Jace’s mother remembers this incident, in part because she was surprised to learn that he had defecated in the room. Hadn’t she been told he wouldn’t be alone? When reporters showed her the lengthy report, she read and reread it for at least 20 minutes, tears falling onto the pages.
“I didn’t know it was like this. I didn’t know they wrote this all down,” Beaven said. “None of it should have happened.”
In the nearly 50,000 pages of reports reporters reviewed about Illinois students in seclusion, school workers often keep watch over children who are clearly in distress. They dutifully document kids urinating and spitting in fear or anger and then being ordered to wipe the walls clean and mop the floors.
Kansas TLC is operated by the Eastern Illinois Area Special Education district, which serves students from eight counties and is based in Charleston. Illinois has about 70 regional special-education districts that teach students who can’t be accommodated in their home districts.
Eastern Illinois officials ultimately released roughly 10,000 pages of records chronicling nearly 1,100 isolated timeouts. Analysis of those records shows more than half of seclusions there were prompted by something other than a safety issue.
When students at any of the three schools have been disrespectful or disruptive, they are required to take a “head down” — to lower their heads and remain silent for a set number of minutes. If they refuse, they often are sent to a Quiet Room — sometimes for hours — until they comply.
Zayvion Johnson, 15, remembers how it felt. He used to go to the Kansas school, too, and spent time in the same rooms as Jace.
“They told us it was there to help us, but it just made everybody mad,” said Zayvion, now a sophomore at Charleston High School who plays running back and middle linebacker on the football team. “The Quiet Room, it irritates people. … You’re isolated from everybody else. You can’t talk to anybody else.”
The Eastern Illinois district’s executive director, Tony Reeley, said he had not grasped how often seclusion was being used in his schools until he read some of the documents requested by reporters.
“Looking at a stack of 8,000 pages at one time really did kind of hit home,” Reeley said when he met with reporters in the spring. He has not responded to recent requests for comment, including about specific incidents.
Reeley and assistant director Jeremy Doughty said they were surprised and concerned about how frequently staff used seclusion rooms after students were disobedient but not physically aggressive.
“When we read it, it reads punitive,” Doughty said.
“We have to do something to address this,” said Reeley.
In October 2018, Jace died at home in rural Paris of a seizure in his sleep. He had not returned to Kansas TLC that fall; his family had decided to home-school him, in part to keep him out of the Quiet Rooms.
In the family’s living room, Jace’s mom shared photos of him at a Wiggles concert, in a Spider-Man costume, sitting on Santa’s lap. A favorite image features the family wearing “Team Jace” T-shirts at an autism walk; Jace’s shirt reads “I’m Jace.”
“He loved his dad and loved me and he loved his Gammy,” his mother said. “He had issues, but they weren’t his fault. He couldn’t control it.”
A Boy in a Plywood Box
THE PLYWOOD BOX in the middle of Ted Meckley’s special-education classroom was 3 feet wide, 3 feet deep and 7 feet tall. The schools around Pontiac had been using boxes to seclude students for years, and Ted, a nonverbal 16-year-old with developmental disabilities, was routinely shut inside.
In 1989, Ted’s mother, Judith, started speaking out. Newspapers published stories, people got upset, and the boxes were removed.
Judith Meckley joined a state task force to examine the use of seclusion. After a brief ban on the practice, the state Board of Education issued guidance and then, a few years later, rules that carried the weight of state law.
The Illinois rules accepted the need for seclusion, a practice already used in psychiatric hospitals and other institutional settings.
After Congress enacted a 1975 law guaranteeing a free public education to children with disabilities, the colleges and universities that trained teachers sought guidance from behavioral psychologists on how to manage these potentially challenging students.
At the time, some researchers favored using cattle prods and electric shock to discourage unwanted behavior. Another method was to move the misbehaving patient into an environment with fewer stimuli — someplace calmer.
“It gave a psychological justification for seclusion,” said Scot Danforth, a professor at Chapman University in California who studies the education of children with disabilities and believes seclusion is ineffective.
Illinois’ rules, now 20 years old, require that school employees constantly monitor the child and that they be able to see inside the room. Locks on the doors must be active, meaning they have to be continuously held in place. That’s so a child can’t be trapped during a fire or other emergency.
But the rules also cemented the use of seclusion in Illinois’ public schools.
“Essentially the regulations legitimized practices that place students at risk of serious harm and trauma,” said Naiditch, of Equip for Equality.
The Illinois law also lists reasons children can be physically restrained, a practice sometimes used in conjunction with seclusion. But the law is less precise about seclusion than about restraint, leaving room for misinterpretation by school officials.
“It makes it even more dangerous because schools are widely using it as punishment,” Naiditch said after reading some of the incident reports obtained by ProPublica Illinois and the Tribune.
School administrators who use seclusion say they need it to deal with students whose behavior is challenging, disruptive and, at times, dangerous.
“If (students are) committed to hurting someone, that room is a way to keep them safe,” said Alicia Corrigan, director of student services for Community Consolidated School District 15, which operates a therapeutic day program in Rolling Meadows for 40 students with disabilities.
Students there were secluded about 330 times in the time period reporters examined.
But “that’s the smallest part of our day,” Corrigan said. “That is not what we do all day.”
The Belleville Area Special Services Cooperative, near St. Louis, has two timeout rooms. Scratch marks are visible in the blue padding inside and on the windows in the heavy, locking doors.
“Does it actually teach them anything or develop a skill? Absolutely not,” said Jeff Daugherty, who heads the cooperative. He allowed journalists to tour the Pathways school and see timeout rooms. “It’s never pleasant. I do believe it’s a necessary tool for our line of work with our students.”
The U.S. Department of Education warned in 2012 that secluding students can be dangerous and said that there is no evidence it’s effective in reducing problematic behaviors.
A few school districts in Illinois prohibit seclusion, including Chicago Public Schools, which banned it 11 years ago. But these districts often send students with disabilities to schools that do use it, such as those operated by most of Illinois’ special-education districts.
Danforth said seclusion goes unexamined because it largely affects students with disabilities.
To put children in timeout rooms, “you really have to believe that you’re dealing with people who are deeply defective. And that’s what the staff members tell each other. … You can do it because of who you’re doing it to.”
Ted Meckley, whose experiences in Pontiac’s timeout box as a teenager helped change the practice of seclusion, is now 45 and living in a group home. When a reporter told his mother that seclusion still is widely used, she gasped.
“No!” Meckley said. “My goodness. That is the most discouraging thing. I spent six years of my life fighting on this very issue. It’s so discouraging to think that, 25 years later, here we are. No progress.”
In fact, reporters identified several schools that have added more seclusion rooms in the past year or so. North Shore School District 112 converted two coat closets to isolation rooms. The McLean district in Normal opened two rooms in an elementary school.
And at Dirksen Elementary School in Schaumburg, two new 6-by-6 rooms are in use. They’re called “resolution rooms.”
The Revolving Door
BY 8:35 A.M. on Dec. 19, 2017, all five of the timeout “booths” at Bridges Learning Center near Centralia were already full. School had been in session for five minutes.
Each booth is about 6 by 8 feet, with a steel door. That day, one held a boy who had hung on a basketball rim and swore at staff when they told him to stop. In another, a boy who had used “raised voice tones.”
Two boys were being held because they hadn’t finished classwork. Inside the fifth room was a boy who had tried to “provoke” other students when he got off a bus. Staff told him he’d be back again “to serve 15 minutes every morning due to his irrational behavior.”
None of those reasons for seclusion is permitted under Illinois law.
Yet, over the course of that one day, the rooms stayed busy, with two turning over like tables in a restaurant, emptying and refilling four times. The other three were occupied for longer periods, as long as five hours for the boy who hung off the basketball rim. In all, Bridges staff isolated students 20 times.
Seclusion is supposed to be rare, a last resort. But at Bridges, part of the Kaskaskia Special Education District in southern Illinois, and at many other schools, it is often the default response.
Bridges used seclusion 1,288 times in the 15 months of school that reporters examined. The school has about 65 students.
According to the Tribune/ProPublica Illinois analysis of Bridges records, 72% of the seclusions were not prompted by a safety issue, as the law requires.
“There were kids there every day,” said Brandon Skibinski, who worked as a paraprofessional at Bridges for part of the 2018-19 school year. “I didn’t think that was the best practice. I don’t know what the best practices are, though.”
Cassie Clark, who heads the Kaskaskia Special Education District, did not respond to requests for comment about the district’s practices.
In Illinois, seclusion is meant to be used for safety purposes, not to punish students. Isolated timeouts also must end no more than 30 minutes after a student's unsafe behavior stops. But records show some schools did not release children until they apologized or performed a task; others referred to children "serving time."
In nearly 6,000 of the incidents reporters analyzed from schools across the state, students were secluded only because they were disruptive, disrespectful, not following directions, not participating in class or a combination of those reasons.
“That is clearly not good practice,” said Kevin Rubenstein, president of the Illinois Alliance of Administrators of Special Education, which represents 1,200 public and private special-education administrators in the state. “To the extent there is bad practice going on across the state, we need to fix that.”
The Kaskaskia district’s revolving-door use of the timeout booths stands out, but some other districts seclude children nearly as frequently.
The Special Education District of Lake County used isolated timeout about 1,200 times over the 15-month period reporters examined. Northern Suburban Special Education District in Highland Park put children in seclusion more than 900 times.
Some traditional school districts also relied on seclusion. For example, Valley View School District 365U in Romeoville and Schaumburg District 54 each secluded students more than 160 times in the time period examined. Wilmette District 39 put students in isolated timeout 361 times in 2017-18 alone.
Illinois’ seclusion rules are more permissive than federal guidelines, which say seclusion should be used only in cases of “imminent danger of serious physical harm.” In Illinois, children can be secluded for physical safety concerns regardless of the threat level.
The state law also doesn’t encourage staff to try other interventions first. And while federal officials suggest that seclusion should end as soon as the problematic behavior stops, Illinois law allows a child to be secluded for up to 30 minutes more.
Even with these looser rules, the ProPublica Illinois/Tribune investigation found that Illinois schools regularly flout and misinterpret state law.
Some schools use seclusion — or the threat of it — as punishment. At the Braun Educational Center in south suburban Oak Forest, a classroom door features a sign saying: “If you walk to the door or open it you WILL earn” a visit to the “isolation and reflection” space. The school’s director said the sign is not a threat but a visual reminder that leaving is a violation of school rules.
Others won’t release children from seclusion until they apologize or sit against a wall or put their heads down. The Tri-County Special Education district in Carbondale routinely made children write sentences as a condition of release, records show. Students there often were kept in isolation long after the safety threat was over, sometimes even starting their next school day in a timeout room. Tri-County Director Jan Pearcy told reporters those practices ended this year.
Seclusion Room: Four Examples
Some Illinois schools provided images of their timeout rooms in response to public-records requests. The red buttons are commonly used to engage magnetic locks; to protect a child from being trapped, the buttons must be held down for the locks to work. Staffers also must be able to see inside the room.
Administrators in some districts have decided that putting a child in a room is not an isolated timeout if there is no door or the door is left open — even though the student is being blocked from leaving. State law does not say an isolated timeout requires a closed door.
“We only consider something isolated timeout if a student is in the room with the door shut and magnet (lock) held,” said Kristin Dunker, who heads the Vermilion Association for Special Education in Danville. “I understand this isn’t going to look good for us.”
At Bridges, records show how staff violated the state’s rules. Schools aren’t supposed to put students in seclusion for talking back or swearing, but Bridges did repeatedly. Workers also shut many students in booths for hours after the child’s challenging behavior ended.
One boy argued with Bridges workers as they tried to force him into isolation in March 2018 for being uncooperative. “I don’t want to go in a booth,” he said. “You’ll lock me in there all day.”
He was kept in the booth for nearly five hours.
Laura Myers saw Bridges’ timeout booths during school meetings and told administrators they should never be used on her 6-year-old son, Gabriel. A tiny, giggly boy with bright red hair, Gabriel has autism and is nonverbal, though he can sign a few words, including “blue,” “green” and “truck.”
“There’s a metal bench, the lock and key, the whole nine,” Myers said. “The sad part is there are parents there who don’t know it’s wrong and don’t know how their children are being treated.”
She was assured Gabriel would not be secluded. But she started to worry when he came home signing “timeout.” Now, she’s fighting for a different school placement.
Harm to Children
DARLA KNIPE COULD hear it when she walked toward the timeout room in her son’s school: a thudding sound, over and over.
She turned to a school aide and asked: “‘What is that noise?’”
It was her 7-year-old son, Isaiah. The first grader was banging his head against the concrete and plywood walls of the timeout room at Middlefork School in Danville. Knipe was shocked. He didn’t do that at home, she said.
Documents from Isaiah’s school, part of the Vermilion Association for Special Education, show that he was put in the timeout room regularly beginning in kindergarten. He started banging his head in first grade and continued through third, doing it nearly every time he was secluded.
“Isaiah states he has headache and ringing in his ears,” according to a report from Dec. 8, 2017. “Nurse filling out concussion form.”
Then, a month later: “Nurse is concerned he has been head banging several times, even slower to answer than usual, he was dizzy when he stood up, almost fell over.”
Sitting in his home last spring, Isaiah, now 10, looked down when asked why he hits his head.
“I tell the teachers why,” he said. “The timeout room … I don’t like it.”
Records and interviews show how seclusion can harm children. Students ripped their fingernails or bruised their knuckles hitting the door. Their hands swelled and bled from beating the walls. In some cases, children were hurt so badly that ambulances were called.
Several parents said their children became afraid of school. Some said their children didn’t want to sleep alone. Other families said the rooms were so distressing that their children would not talk about them.
Angie Martin said her 9-year-old son now sees himself as such a bad child that he believes he belongs in seclusion. In less than three weeks at the start of this school year, he spent 731 minutes — more than 12 hours — in isolated timeout, records show.
“My concern is the damage that has been done, socially, emotionally and physically,” said Martin, whose son went to school in the Lincoln-Way Area Special Education district program in Chicago’s southwest suburbs. He now attends a private school.
The Tribune/ProPublica Illinois analysis found that the median duration of a seclusion was 22 minutes; in at least 1,300 cases the student spent more than an hour in isolated timeout.
One incident lasted 10 hours, with the student kept inside from breakfast into the evening.
Ross Greene, a clinical child psychologist and author of the book “The Explosive Child,” said repeated seclusion fuels a harmful cycle. Children who are frustrated and falling behind academically are taken out of the classroom, which makes them more frustrated and puts them even further behind.
“You end up with an alienated, disenfranchised kid who is being over-punished and lacks faith in adults,” Greene said.
Amber Patz, whose 11-year-old son Dalton was repeatedly secluded at The Center, an elementary school in East Moline for children with disabilities, said spending so much time in isolation put him behind academically and did not help him regulate his behavior.
“Putting you in this little room while you get red-faced does not work for him,” she said. “You have to think outside the box, but instead we are literally putting them in a box.”
Parents often do not know the details of what happens in seclusion. Though state law requires schools to notify families in writing within 24 hours each day a child is secluded, that doesn’t always happen.
While some notices describe the incident, others are form letters with just a checked box to indicate that a child was secluded. The law requires only that parents be notified of the date of the incident, whether restraint or seclusion was used, and the name and phone number of someone to call for more information.
Some parents said they got such abbreviated notices they didn’t know what seclusion meant or how long their child had been in a room. Others said staff used euphemistic language to describe seclusion, making it hard to understand what really happened.
Crystal Lake school employees have suggested to Kayla Siegmeier that her son, Carson, who has autism, might benefit from time in a “Blue Room,” she said.
“It turns out the Blue Room is a locked, padded room,” she said.
She read Illinois’ isolated timeout law and got a doctor’s note last year that prevented the school from secluding Carson, now a second grader. “Hard stop,” she said she told the school.
Crystal Lake school officials acknowledged they could be more transparent with parents and said they use the rooms only in emergencies.
In Danville, Darla Knipe knew that her son Isaiah was frequently in seclusion, but she didn’t know the school kept detailed incident reports each time it happened until reporters showed them to her.
“I never got anything like this,” Knipe said.
When she requested the reports from the district, she said, officials told her she could have asked for them any time. “Why would I ask for an incident report I didn’t know about to begin with?” she said.
The district gave her 212 reports, and she didn’t tackle the huge pile of paper right away. Then one night she woke up at 2 a.m. and stayed up for hours reading them. She learned what set Isaiah off and how he reacted.
“If we had talked after three, five, six of these, was there something I should have been doing?” she wondered.
She said she would have shared the reports with doctors who were working to diagnose the cause of his behavioral challenges. “I think about how different that boy could have been.”
Dunker, the district director, said that although parents don’t get minute-by-minute reports, they are notified by phone and then in writing after a seclusion. “I feel like that is just fine in terms of what a parent needs,” she said.
A Better Way
THERE ARE SCHOOL districts in Illinois — and all across the country — where seclusion isn’t the response to defiant or even aggressive behavior. In fact, it’s never an option.
Jim Nelson, who took over the North DuPage Special Education Cooperative in July 2016, said he put in a maintenance request on his first day to take the door off the seclusion room at Lincoln Academy, a therapeutic day school for students with emotional and behavioral difficulties.
The year before, the school in suburban Roselle, which has an enrollment of about 30, had placed students in the room 181 times, federal data shows. The space now has a lava lamp, fuzzy pillows, a beanbag and puzzles, and students go there on their own when they need a break, Nelson said.
He said he thinks all schools could get rid of seclusion and still be able to educate students. Since ending the practice, the North DuPage district has not seen an increase in the number of students transferred to more restrictive schools, he said.
“We have outbursts every day,” Nelson said, but “you are now trying to figure out what is the root of this outburst: Is it a home issue, a bus issue, a peer issue, a relationship issue, environment or fluorescent lights? We have to problem solve.”
Through the Eyes of a Child
Very few Illinois public schools allowed reporters or photographers to view the spaces they use for isolated timeout. So reporters who met with the families of secluded students invited children to draw their impressions of the rooms.
Administrators at schools that have closed their rooms say the cultural shift takes a lot of effort and training.
Eliminating seclusion generally requires two steps: first, embracing the philosophy that isolating children is unacceptable; second, teaching staff members how to identify and address the causes of challenging behavior before it reaches a crisis point.
Zac Barry, who teaches a system based at Cornell University called Therapeutic Crisis Intervention, said staff often get into a power struggle when students don’t obey, even over trivial matters.
“Don’t argue with them,” Barry said at a recent training session in Peoria for people who work with children. “If they don’t want to sit down, don’t try to make them sit down!”
Among other strategies, TCI teaches that it’s more effective to back away from an upset student, giving him space, than to move in closer. Teachers are trained how to stand in a nonthreatening way.
In Naperville School District 203, the rooms formerly used for isolated timeout are now sensory areas stocked with weighted stuffed animals and sound-blocking headphones.
Christine Igoe, who oversees special education in the 16,000-student district, said eliminating seclusion helps teachers and other staffers build relationships with students. Without seclusion as an option, she said, students and staff are less likely to be on high alert and anxious that situations will escalate.
“When you change your lens from ‘the student is making a choice’ to ‘the student is lacking a skill,’ everything changes,” Igoe said.
Kim Sanders, executive vice president of the Grafton behavioral health network in Virginia, which includes private therapeutic day schools, said schools there overhauled their approach after employees were injured in confrontations with students so frequently that the district lost its workers’ compensation insurance.
“Our outcomes were not great,” she said. “It was horrible for our staff morale.”
Since then, Grafton has developed a behavior model called Ukeru that it now sells to other schools. It’s based on the idea that staff should attempt to comfort, not control, children. When a child becomes violent, the system suggests staff use cushioned shields to protect themselves.
“If seclusion or restraint worked,” Sanders said, “wouldn’t you have to do it once or twice and you’d never have to do it again? It’s not working.”
Little Kids, Locked Away
ILLINOIS SCHOOLS SECLUDED an 8-year-old boy who got upset when he couldn’t ride the green bike during recess, a first grade boy who didn’t want to stop playing tag and a third grader who didn’t get the prize he wanted.
Even preschool children spent time in isolated timeout, records show.
The majority of incident reports reviewed for this investigation did not specify the grade of the child. But ProPublica Illinois and the Tribune identified more than 1,700 incidents when the student being secluded was in fifth grade or younger. Hundreds of seclusions involved kids in preschool, kindergarten or first grade.
One 7-year-old boy named Eli spent 1,652 minutes — 27½ hours — in the “reflection rooms” as a first grader at a school called The Center in East Moline, school records show.
Still learning to say some of his letters, Eli calls the spaces the “flection” rooms. When his mom, Elisha, gently corrects him, he snuggles into her side. “It’s hard to really say,” he explained.
Eli was referred to The Center, which offers a program for children with behavioral and emotional disabilities, when he was in kindergarten. Records show he sometimes had trouble coping with the frustrations of elementary school — not unlike many other Illinois children who were secluded after outbursts common for their age.
When staff told him he couldn’t play with toys, he started to tip desks and chairs. Because he didn’t want to come inside from recess, he began “flopping,” refused to walk and was “being unsafe.” He “could not continue to play nice” with blocks and started to hit and tried to run out of class. Sometimes, he would kick staff or throw objects around the room.
According to records from the school district and his family, Eli was secluded more than a dozen times in kindergarten, beginning when he was 5. In first grade, it happened 49 times. His longest timeout was 115 minutes.
“There is no reason my child should be in a timeout room for two hours,” said his mother, who asked that the family’s last name not be published.
Elisha pulled her son out of The Center at the end of last school year after noticing bruises on his arm and a fingernail indentation that broke the skin. Records show Eli was physically restrained by three staff members and put in isolated timeout that day. He now attends a private school.
Schrader, director of the Black Hawk Area Special Education District, which operates The Center in northwestern Illinois, said staff at the school use the seclusion room “on a case-by-case basis, incident by incident” to help students learn strategies to calm themselves. She declined to comment on Eli’s case or that of any specific child.
“We use it more as a way to help the student learn to deescalate themselves and constant supervision to maintain their safety,” she said.
When a reporter asked Eli whether the calm down rooms helped him calm down, he shook his head no.
How did he feel when in the room?
“Mad,” he said quietly.
THE SECLUSION ROOMS inside Braun Educational Center in Oak Forest look like so many others across Illinois: blue padding along the walls, a small window where staff can look in. The red button outside that locks the door. A mirror in the upper corner to give a fuller view.
In one room, three long tear marks were visible in the padding of the door — left there, the principal said, by a student with autism.
About 150 elementary through high school students with disabilities attend programs at Braun, which is operated by the Southwest Cook County Cooperative Association for Special Education. Gineen O’Neil, the co-op’s executive director, described many as troubled and challenging; some are homeless, abuse drugs, get pregnant or struggle with mental illness, she said. Some, she said, “run the streets” at night.
“People have to realize they get educated somewhere, and this is where it is,” O’Neil said.
Over 1½ school years, staffers isolated students nearly 500 times. O’Neil said students are not secluded as punishment.
But the Tribune/ProPublica Illinois analysis found that in 46% of seclusions at Braun, staff documented no safety reason that preceded the isolation. O’Neil said some of these incidents could have involved a safety issue despite the lack of documentation, but she also described the findings as “disturbing” and ordered a review of practices.
“You are making 1,000 judgment calls a day, you know what I mean?” O’Neil said. “You don’t always call them right.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, it was quiet in the halls. Most of the children had gathered to watch a movie and eat popcorn. They had earned the reward for good behavior.
But one boy didn’t qualify — and he was mad. The principal, Kristine Jones, said that after the rest of his class left for the movie, he shouted: “This place sucks. I’m leaving.”
He didn’t actually leave. But the boy was a “runner” when upset, Jones said, and they wanted to “pre-correct” his behavior.
So they took him to an isolation room.
Additional data analysis by Haru Coryne and data reporting by Kaarin Tisue, Nicole Stock, Brenda Medina and David Eads; additional research by Doris Burke; visual presentation by Agnes Chang, Jonathon Berlin, Chad Yoder, Vignesh Ramachandran, Sisi Wei, Jemal R. Brinson and Andrew Johnston.
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“None of the Children at the School Are Safe”