The Quiet Rooms
“None of the Children at the School Are Safe”
One school. 21 abuse investigations. And the struggle to stop relying on seclusion and restraint.
By Jodi S. Cohen and Jennifer Smith Richards • December 12, 2019
The knock came on Beth Sandy’s door late one Friday afternoon at the end of May.
Standing outside was an investigator with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, the state agency charged with examining allegations of child abuse and neglect.
Sandy assumed she was in trouble for violating truancy laws. A week earlier, she had pulled her 7-year-old son from Gages Lake School, which serves young children in suburban Lake County with behavioral and emotional disabilities, after he complained of a scary office and began hiding under the bed when the school bus arrived.
“Oh, great, here we go,” Sandy, who lives in north suburban Round Lake Heights, remembers thinking to herself.
But she wasn’t the target of the investigation; school employees were. An administrator at Gages Lake had reported concerns to DCFS that Sandy’s son Staley had been physically abused, the investigator explained. There was video. The investigator wanted to talk with the boy.
Since mid-May, DCFS has opened a total of 21 abuse investigations involving students at Gages Lake. Citing evidence from surveillance video, agency reports describe workers grabbing children by the wrists, shoving them into walls and throwing them to the ground in a cluster of four seclusion spaces — some with lockable doors, others open — that the school calls “the office.”
Two aides at the center of the investigations resigned from the school. One of them is facing criminal charges; Lake County prosecutors allege he used excessive force on students.
Despite recent efforts at Gages Lake to add employee training and more support for students, the school continues to struggle, with dozens of calls to police, staff resignations and new reports of abuse this school year.
The monthslong crisis at Gages Lake — pieced together through interviews and a review of DCFS reports, police records and employee complaints — underscores what can happen when a school relies too heavily on seclusion and physical restraint.
Parents like Sandy were shocked to learn how their children were treated. Teachers and other school employees also ended up at risk of harm as a lack of training and staffing complicated the already tough job of working with children who have behavioral challenges.
Two weeks into the current school year, a teacher contacted DCFS with a warning, records show. “None of the children at the school are safe,” he said.
In an investigation published last month, ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune revealed that school districts throughout Illinois routinely violated the state’s law on isolated timeout, which permitted employees to seclude students only if the children were in danger of hurting themselves or others.
Reporters obtained and reviewed thousands of school incident reports that described the emotional and physical trauma suffered by students, most of them with disabilities, after being shut in small rooms alone for long periods. Responding to these findings, the state placed an emergency ban on locking children alone in seclusion rooms.
During the 15-month period reporters examined, from August 2017 to December 2018, Gages Lake students were secluded more times than students at all but one Illinois school included in the analysis.
More recent data obtained by the Tribune and ProPublica Illinois shows that Gages Lake put students in isolation more than 1,700 times in the school year that ended in May. At least 23% of those timeouts occurred for no documented safety reason, reporters found. Instead, the students had disrespected staff, failed to comply with rules or engaged in verbal abuse.
The Special Education District of Lake County, the district that oversees Gages Lake and several other programs for students with disabilities, is one of eight districts under investigation by the Illinois State Board of Education in response to the Tribune/ProPublica Illinois report. SEDOL has joined other Illinois districts in taking the doors off seclusion rooms after the state banned isolated seclusion.
SEDOL Superintendent Valerie Donnan said an internal investigation into the use of isolated timeout and physical restraint concluded that some “procedures were not followed” at Gages Lake. “We have been actively and relentlessly working to change,” she wrote last week in response to questions.
Gages Lake teachers and workers say they don’t know what strategies to use now that they’ve been told they can’t turn to restraint or seclusion except in dire situations.
“The overall flow of that building was so chaotic and unsafe,” said a Gages Lake teacher who resigned in the fall. “I got to the point where I wasn’t sure what their expectations were. My safety was at risk. The kids’ safety was at risk.”
Caught on Video
On May 16, two weeks before DCFS showed up at Sandy’s doorstep, a 7-year-old boy from Gurnee got off the school bus from Gages Lake and told his father that his butt hurt because a school aide had made him fall.
His father couldn’t see an obvious injury, but the family contacted school officials, who said the boy had slipped and fallen during an encounter with an aide. But then, at the parents’ urging, administrators watched surveillance footage of the incident.
In the video, records show, the boy was standing against the wall in one of four bays that make up the area referred to as “the office.” The office had locked rooms and doorless areas, which were referred to as “calming” rooms.
An aide named Nicholas Izquierdo, who was sitting in a rolling chair, leaned down and grabbed the boy by the ankles, causing the child to fall to the ground, according to DCFS records and his parents, who watched video of the incident.
After watching the footage, school officials reported the incident to DCFS and an investigator showed up at the boy’s home on the evening of May 17. The boy, who has ADHD and behavioral disabilities, told the worker he was sent to the seclusion space when he didn’t follow directions to walk — not run — in a hallway, according to agency records.
School officials watched more surveillance video from the office, which is kept for 30 days. They made another call to DCFS, then another, then another.
ProPublica Illinois and the Tribune reviewed confidential DCFS records that describe what school officials saw in the videos.
The Gurnee boy appeared on video several times. Footage from April 24 showed a different aide, Jennifer Aguirre, carrying him across a room and then throwing him into the timeout area, where he landed on a tile floor. On May 3, Aguirre grabbed the boy by the wrist, turned him around and picked him up.
Staley, the boy from Round Lake Heights, was shown in one of the rooms within the office on April 30. Aguirre, sitting on a rolling chair in the doorway, blocked him from leaving, once pinning his wrist against the wall. He got increasingly upset and kicked at her. She then stood up, chased Staley down and grabbed him around the neck.
On May 1, according to records describing the videos, Izquierdo pulled a 5-year-old boy’s legs out from under him, causing him to fall on his arm. “It is surprising (the boy’s) arm wasn’t broken,” a school administrator told DCFS, according to the agency records. A week later, on May 8, records show, Izquierdo pushed an 8-year-old boy in his chest and onto the floor when the student tried to leave the room.
In all, in a one-month period, school officials identified possible physical abuse involving eight children, from 5 to 8 years old, DCFS records show.
Not Following Orders
An incident report on one of Staley Sandy-Ester's isolated timeouts describes how he refused to follow instructions from staff. Reporters found that at least 23 percent of last year's seclusions at Gages Lake School occurred for no documented safety reason.
Donnan, the superintendent, declined to answer most questions about the videos, saying they were part of an ongoing police investigation. She would not say if school officials had a practice of watching surveillance video prior to the Gurnee family’s inquiry, or how school officials decided which portions of surveillance footage to report to authorities as possible abuse.
When asked about the video of Staley, which the family provided to reporters, Donnan said: “We deeply regret that Staley was treated in this way.”
Izquierdo and Aguirre resigned soon after school officials reviewed the footage.
At least four other Gages Lake employees were put on leave in May and June, including the principal, who was investigated for her alleged “lack of review” of surveillance video. The principal did not respond to requests for comment.
An assistant principal was put on leave as the school examined whether she used and witnessed “inappropriate” and “unapproved” restraints of children. Her lawyer said no additional action was taken against her and she currently works as a teacher in the district.
Izquierdo, 30, who is accused of using excessive force on students, was charged in late October with six counts of misdemeanor reckless conduct.
“I understand educators in this type of environment have a very difficult job to do, but this specific individual went too far,” Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim said when he announced the charges.
On Dec. 5, ISBE sent Izquierdo a letter asking that he voluntarily give up his educator license, an agency spokeswoman said. She said the board does not have the authority to automatically revoke it based on the criminal charges he faces.
Izquierdo’s attorney, Michael Caravello, said his client denies any wrongdoing and that he was a dedicated employee who worked to help troubled children.
“This is a situation where you are doing your job and there is no intention or malice and you are dealing with some emotionally disturbed and behavior-disturbed children. He would get attacked frequently,” Caravello said. “It is a shame that in the course of doing your job and trying to keep the children safe, you now are charged with a crime.”
Aguirre, 47, died by suicide on Aug. 2, soon after learning of the DCFS investigation into her conduct at Gages Lake, records show. She had worked at the school for nearly 18 years.
Aguirre’s family told police and the Lake County coroner’s office that she was “stressed out” about possible criminal charges, records show. They said she had told them that the school was understaffed but she loved her job and “the children needed her,” the coroner’s case report states.
The eight allegations against Izquierdo are pending, according to a DCFS spokesman. All five cases involving Aguirre were determined to be unfounded. The other eight cases involved different staff members; a DCFS spokesman would not discuss the outcomes but said five remain pending.
While the abuse investigations from the 2018-19 school year cover only the 30-day period for which school administrators viewed video, children were placed in isolated timeout hundreds of times throughout that year, school data shows.
Donnan, the superintendent, attributed the large number of seclusions — 1,708, up from 270 the year prior — to improved “accuracy and transparency of reporting.” She said the practice was used frequently because the school serves students with significant disabilities, many of whom would require private or residential placements if they weren’t served by SEDOL.
The district declined to provide incident reports that would provide details of student seclusions.
Attorney Micki Moran, who specializes in education law and has consulted with Gages Lake families, said the numbers illustrate that the use of timeouts was embedded in the school’s culture.
“They did it as if it’s what you do every day, like it’s the norm,” Moran said. “These kids weren’t always a danger to themselves or anybody. Frequently these happened because of noncompliance, period.”
For example, after Staley’s mother requested his records, she saw that he was taken to the office for hiding under a cubby, not following directions, flipping a chair and refusing to come inside from recess.
State officials are concerned about the frequent use of timeout at Gages Lake, said State Board of Education spokeswoman Jackie Matthews. An ISBE official visited the school last week.
“Based on these numbers, on their face, we can say they are egregious,” Matthews said.
New Year, More Problems
Before the start of this school year, school officials assured parents they had made a number of improvements. The office got a makeover, with bright paint colors and new padding. Sensory items were purchased to help calm students.
According to Donnan, her administration also limited the use of isolated timeout to “extreme cases.” Figures provided by the district show that students were secluded less often as the school year got underway — 230 times from August to October, compared with 395 in the same period the previous year.
But even before the first day, teachers were on edge, according to Rebecca Slye, co-president of the SEDOL teachers union. She said she asked school administrators whether there was enough trained staff to open safely.
In addition to the employees placed on paid leave, about two dozen teachers, aides and social workers have resigned or retired since the abuse investigations began in the spring, board meeting minutes show. A teacher who resigned in June, after half a year in the job, wrote in her resignation letter that she had decided she “would like to be supporting my students more academically than I am currently able to.”
In September, SEDOL board members voted to stop accepting new students, a ban that remains in effect. At the time, 30 percent of positions were unfilled. There was one staff member for every two students when the budget called for a ratio of one to 1.5 — a “big difference” for needy students, the superintendent told the board, according to meeting minutes.
As of late last month, there were 115 students at Gages Lake, down 30 students from the start of the school year. There were 13 open staff positions, including 10 aides.
Without adequate staffing, student hospitalizations and suspensions increased, an administrator told board members this fall. Behavioral specialists and administrators have been covering teacher and aide vacancies, leaving less schoolwide support for students and staff.
“There is so much chaos going on,” Slye told board members in September.
That has included dozens of calls to law enforcement, six new DCFS investigations and five complaints to the Illinois Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which regulates worker safety. A state OSHA inspector visited the school in September.
One employee reported to the Lake County sheriff’s office that a student struck a teacher and another student with a chair. A boy’s parent called the sheriff because a teacher allegedly grabbed the child by the face. Students dialed 911 from phones in their classrooms. Staff requested ambulances to transport children they said needed psychiatric evaluation.
The district, which already has one Lake County sheriff’s officer stationed at the school, hired an additional officer this fall.
In September, a therapist called DCFS with concerns about a 10-year-old boy who had a bruise and scratch on his upper thigh. The boy told her he was injured when two teachers held him down to stop him from running down the hall and to get a pencil out of his hand. The student asked his mom: “Did they have to restrain me and stick their nail in my skin and scratch me?” according to the DCFS report.
In October, a sheriff’s officer reported to DCFS that an 8-year-old boy had a scratch on his face and a possible swollen eye after a teacher grabbed him by the face and arm as he was running in the hall.
Two parents also reported that employees had pushed or grabbed their children. When DCFS interviewed one of the boys, he described the office as “a mean place where they put you in rooms with nothing in there and you have to sit” for 10 minutes.
A school employee reported that a 9-year-old boy told her he was elbowed in the face by a teacher. And a teacher called DCFS at the end of the school day on Aug. 29 to report that the school was unsafe for students and staff members. He said the school was “extremely understaffed” and students were wandering freely and physically fighting each other, DCFS records show.
“There are just not enough staff to watch all of the students,” he said, according to the DCFS records. “Top administration believes everything is fine even though a number of teachers have expressed their concerns regarding these issues.”
When DCFS interviewed the teacher in late October, he cited some improvements but said he still worried about the safety of the children and staff and was frustrated there were “no real significant consequences set in place when the children misbehave.”
Gages Lake employees also took their concerns to state labor officials.
An Aug. 26 complaint to Illinois OSHA alleged that Gages Lake was “over populated” and understaffed. “Students with behavior disorders throw items at staff from binders to rocks,” it stated, and staff members were getting injured as students kicked, bit and hit them.
On Sept. 20, a state OSHA inspector made an unannounced visit to the school. The building was nearly empty, though; hours earlier, district officials had decided to close the school for the day because too many employees would be absent and it wouldn’t be safe.
OSHA did not issue any citations because the district had already made some changes after learning of the employee complaints, including increasing pay to substitutes to help with staffing issues and freezing student enrollment. The agency issued a “hazard alert,” putting the school on notice that it should continue to develop and update safety plans that address workplace violence.
Kwanita Reddick, a social worker at Gages Lake, was one of about a dozen district employees who spoke at a packed board meeting last week. They described distraught teachers and other employees struggling to understand what to do in an emergency.
The Crisis at Gages Lake
Employees and parents say Gages Lake School, which serves students with behavioral and emotional disabilities, is chaotic and sometimes dangerous. Since mid-May, turmoil at the Lake County school has included 21 child abuse investigations, significant understaffing problems and five workplace safety inquiries.
“Every second here feels like survival,” Reddick said. “We are in constant crisis and there is simply not adequate staffing.”
Reddick said students are “physically and verbally abusive.” Last year, records show, the school district documented 120 staff injuries at Gages Lake.
“For years before the incidents happened last spring, Gages teachers had been asking for help,” said veteran teacher Christine Berek, who said the administration overreacted to perceived abuse last spring instead of working with the employees.
A former aide at Gages Lake said in an interview that the school became a “free for all” this fall after the administration restricted the use of physical restraint without providing adequate training on alternatives and without hiring enough staff. He described the children as “lovable” but troubled.
In interviews, some workers at Gages Lake and other specialized schools in the state expressed the belief that their students needed to be physically restrained and secluded because they were not like typical children.
“You have to use force. If you can’t, you have just kids running through the hallway doing what they want to do. Who will stop them? (Staff) are all scared,” said the former Gages Lake aide. “These kids are not kids, these are animals. They are strong.”
Kevin Rubenstein, president of the Illinois Alliance of Administrators of Special Education, said there are lessons to learn from SEDOL as it works to limit the use of isolated timeout and restraint and take on the challenges that come with changing long-standing practices.
“Making a culture shift is really difficult even under good circumstances,” he said. “They are moving from a more punitive model to one that is more therapeutically focused. They are working really quickly to do that. … There are some people who may push back really hard on that, who may not see eye to eye with you.”
Lisa Azzano, whose 16-year-old son attends a Gages Lake program for older children, said staff turnover means the boy has had three teachers already this year.
“That third teacher is only a substitute,” said Azzano, who lives in Beach Park. “My son — who never cries — about a month ago was crying. A staff member who knows my son asked why he was so upset. He said it’s all the changes. He doesn’t know what will happen tomorrow.”
“They Can’t Explain Why”
As the school works to move forward, the families at the center of the abuse allegations are still trying to understand the past.
The Gurnee boy didn’t return to Gages Lake after his parents saw the video of him being grabbed by his ankles, but district officials continue to call his mother. Each call means there is more video of her son for her to watch.
School officials won’t let the parents watch the video footage for longer than an hour at a time, she said, so they keep returning to the school, again and again.
“Getting those phone calls constantly to watch video of my son being treated this way …” the mother began to say before starting to cry. She didn’t complete the sentence.
Before they saw the videos, the boy’s parents said they didn’t even realize the school had a seclusion space. When they went on a tour, they saw the classrooms, library and the principal’s office, which was stocked with toys for the children to play with.
Their son had been secluded at his previous elementary school, and the parents said they specifically sought assurance that wouldn’t happen at Gages Lake. “I said many times on the tour I don’t want him in a cement jail cell-type space,” the mom said.
When their son came home talking about going to the office for a “reset,” the parents thought that meant the principal’s office. It wasn’t until they saw the videos — and then asked for all records related to their son — that they learned he had been taken to the office 60 to 70 times in kindergarten and first grade. They say they have repeatedly asked to see the space, but school officials have refused.
“It happened so often that he must have thought, ‘When I throw my bag on the floor, they come pick you up and carry you to the room and they drop you in there,’” said the boy’s mother. “My son thinks that’s normal.”
State law requires schools to provide written notice to parents within 24 hours of any isolated timeout or physical restraint, and SEDOL policy says the parents are to be notified “as soon as possible.” But several Gages Lake parents said they did not receive these notices.
Donnan said that despite the school policy, “occasionally parents were not notified.”
“I feel like I’m the worst mother in the world for sending my child to this school every day and he was in this room and I didn’t know it,” the Gurnee boy’s mother said.
He has since transferred to another school, but remains scarred from his time at Gages Lake, the family said.
“My son is terrified to be alone in his room, in a bathroom door stall with the door shut,” his mother said. “He wasn’t like that before.”
Staley’s parents, meanwhile, also have returned to the school to watch hours of footage of their son in the office. School district officials gave them a copy of one video, showing the April 30 incident that prompted the abuse investigation, and the family later shared it with reporters.
The parents said other videos show their son being physically abused but officials won’t give them copies. A DCFS spokesman said the agency has not reviewed any additional video involving Staley.
In some of the video footage, Sandy said, Staley was left unsupervised behind a locked door, with nobody watching from outside. “You just see the minutes roll and roll,” she said. “They can’t explain why my son was even in there.”
One video showed Staley in the office, calmly playing with a paper puppet, when staff moved him into the locked room, his mother said.
“You feel it in your heart. You see this little boy, sitting in a chair, waiting for his turn to go in the room,” Sandy said. “Then he gets put in a room for an hour with a locked door … This child hasn’t done anything wrong. It is messed up.”
Sandy said she received three written notices documenting behavioral interventions during the nine weeks Staley attended Gages Lake last spring, two for isolated timeouts and one for physical restraint. Yet, when she later asked for Staley’s records, she learned he had been taken to the office more than 20 times. The family says it received no paperwork from the April 30 incident.
Staley is being home-schooled while his family looks for another placement for him. He doesn’t like to talk about his experiences at Gages Lake. His mother said that Staley, who is passionate about computers, sometimes says his “memory files got deleted.”
His mother keeps a folder of school documents and a journal of notes as she tries to determine what happened to him at the school. She still thinks about how he didn’t want to get on the school bus every morning and how he used to press his palm against the window as it drove away.
ProPublica Illinois reporters Duaa Eldeib, Lakeidra Chavis and Haru Coryne contributed to this story.
Jennifer Smith Richards is a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, where she specializes in data analysis. She previously covered schools and education for more than a decade at newspapers around the country. Contact Jennifer by email and on Twitter.