The Quiet Rooms
An investigation into the violation of a decades-old Illinois law meant to protect students from being physically restrained or locked away in stark rooms as punishment. Judges described “The Quiet Rooms” as “a tour de force of investigative reporting and accountability journalism.” They called it "exhaustive," "fair," and "outstanding from all angles," applauding the “use of testimony from the protagonists in seclusion" and "situating the issue in both a state context and broader national context." Originally published by ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune between November and December 2019.
Children are being locked away, alone and terrified, in schools across Illinois. Often, it's against the law.
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.
“None of the Children at the School Are Safe”
“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.
Schools Aren’t Supposed to Forcibly Restrain Children as Punishment. In Illinois, It Happened Repeatedly.
Schools Aren’t Supposed to Forcibly Restrain Children as Punishment. In Illinois, It Happened Repeatedly.
As Illinois moves to restrict the use of physical restraint in schools, records show the practice was often misused, leaving students and staff injured.
By Jennifer Smith Richards, Jodi S. Cohen and Lakeidra Chavis • Photography by Zbigniew Bzdak • November 22, 2019
The adults gathered in a hotel ballroom in Peoria — school employees, caregivers, health care workers — fell silent as their instructor, a muscled and tattooed mixed martial arts fighter, stared at them to demand attention.
Over five days of training, the participants would learn how to physically control children who pose a danger to themselves or others. But first, Zac Barry focused on what he views as the most important lesson.
“Choosing to use a restraint should be an extremely difficult decision,” he told the class. “Kids die in restraints.”
To Barry, a social worker who teaches a system called Therapeutic Crisis Intervention, the message is clear: Physically restraining a child is a deadly serious matter. It should be used in an emergency and at no other time.
“We do not do it to force compliance,” he told the class. “We’re not doing it to inflict pain or harm. We’re definitely not using it as punishment or discipline in any way, shape or form.”
But a Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois investigation shows that message often is lost.
An analysis of more than 15,000 physical restraints in 100 Illinois school districts from August 2017 to early December 2018 found that about a quarter of the interventions began without any documented safety reason. Instead, they often happened after a student was disrespectful, profane or not following rules. These instances violate a 20-year-old state law that allows children to be restrained at school only for safety reasons.
Records show that most of the children restrained had behavioral or intellectual disabilities.
The law defines physical restraint as holding a student or otherwise restricting the child’s movement. The student can be standing, seated or lying down. A brief hold intended to keep students safe or to escort them from one place to another is not considered a restraint. Illinois law prohibits the use of mechanical restraints, such as straps or handcuffs, in schools.
One girl in the Chicago suburbs who had spent five hours in a seclusion room was “taken to floor” after she refused to return to isolation after a bathroom break, according to records from the elementary school run by Proviso Area for Exceptional Children in Maywood.
“My back hurt,” she said, kicking her legs. “Y’all got me smashed to the floor.” She was restrained for 32 minutes as school workers waited for her to stop moving.
In 50,000 pages of school records reviewed by reporters, aides and teachers documented numerous injuries to the children they had restrained: Cuts on the students’ hands, scratches on necks and noses. Collarbones that hurt to touch. Knots on their heads and split lips. Sore ankles and wrists.
In at least two dozen incidents, schools called an ambulance for a child.
School employees got hurt, too, as they wrestled with flailing children who sometimes bit, hit or kicked while trying to get free.
On Nov. 19, ProPublica Illinois and the Tribune published “The Quiet Rooms,” an investigation into the practice of secluding students in small spaces. The next day, the Illinois State Board of Education took emergency action to prohibit the locked “isolated timeouts” previously allowed under state law.
Reporters also had begun to tell state officials about their findings on restraint, which schools often use in tandem with seclusion. Among those findings: Schools across the state were using prone restraints, in which students are held facedown on the floor, and some districts used them frequently.
Restraints in a prone position are particularly dangerous because they can cut off a child’s ability to breathe. Officials from the state Board of Education, which was not monitoring schools’ use of seclusion or restraint, said in an interview they did not know the extent to which Illinois children were being put in prone restraints. A board official noted it was not required by law to keep track.
The board, which put emergency restrictions in place on all restraints in the wake of “The Quiet Rooms,” is moving to ban prone restraints permanently.
“Under my watch, I cannot — I will not — allow it to continue,” state schools Superintendent Carmen Ayala said in an interview. Ayala, appointed in February, said she was “taken aback” to learn about the behavioral interventions schools were using, including seclusion and prone restraint. New rules require schools to report their use of seclusion or restraint within two days.
Many districts, including the Proviso special education cooperative, declined to discuss individual incidents but told reporters they follow the state law and strive to keep children safe.
The schools examined as part of this investigation likely represent a fraction of the number that actually used physical restraint in Illinois. The 100 school districts and special-education cooperatives included in the analysis were selected because they previously reported using seclusion to the federal government or because they exclusively served students with disabilities.
Many more districts — more than 280 — reported to the U.S. Department of Education that they had used physical restraint in the 2015-16 school year, the most recent data available. Even that number is likely an undercount, as the federal database relies on self-reporting from districts and is known to omit information.
For 11-year-old Austin Kelly, being restrained or secluded has been a routine part of his time at school, his family told reporters.
The school he attends, the Kansas Treatment and Learning Center in east-central Illinois, restrained students at least 171 times from August 2017 to early December of last year, records show. Officials from the Eastern Illinois Area Special Education district did not respond to requests for comment.
At his grandmother’s home in Ashmore this year, Austin and his brother were playfully chasing each other when, as they fell to the floor, Austin cried out: “I’m restraining you!”
“It’s just he thinks normal is … restraints,” said Austin’s mother, Spring Andrews. “His brother will do something to make him mad, and he’ll restrain him!”
Andrews said Austin, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, does not need to be restrained to calm down.
“They showed him that violence is OK. They showed him that putting hands on someone is OK,” she said. “It is not OK.”
When school employees learn the techniques of physical restraint, they practice on other adults, moving in slow motion as they grip their arms from behind or take them to the ground. Everyone is a willing participant.
In reality, physically restraining a child can be an ugly encounter.
That becomes evident in reading the records that state law requires school workers to keep when they restrain a child. The documents often detail these incidents moment by moment, including what was said.
One incident last year in the Valley View School District southwest of Chicago began with employees taking away pencils that a boy had been using as drumsticks in class. He got upset, threw books and was taken to a seclusion room, where he stomped on a staff member’s foot. He then was restrained for 15 minutes as school workers tried to hold him still, and he complained he couldn’t breathe.
“You’re gonna get me dead,” he said as he begged to be let go. Valley View district officials did not respond to a request for comment.
At the Kansas Treatment and Learning Center, records show that workers scoffed when a boy told them his father had forbidden employees to restrain him. They then performed what’s known as a “takedown” and restrained him flat on his back on the floor. Workers also held him in a standing position and put him in seclusion.
The incident lasted five hours; workers took 14 pages of notes.
“Are we going to do this all day?” an aide asked the boy. “Are you ready to get up? Yes or no. You ready to sit against (the) back wall? Yes or no. Good choices.”
The same boy was restrained three times that day in November 2018, the last time so forcefully that school employees documented his cries of pain and noted that they gave him ice packs and used a wheelchair to take him to the bathroom because his knee was injured during the incident.
Students sometimes lash out — swearing, spitting, head-butting — during the encounters. One student at the A.E.R.O. Special Education Cooperative in Burbank, southwest of Chicago, was restrained last year after he dropped to the floor and began flailing his legs while being escorted to a timeout room.
Taken to the floor in a prone position, he yelled and swore at a staff member, saying, “I wanna punch you in the face you … bitch.”
Marks Left on Students, Staff
Records kept by school workers document how both students and staff can be injured during physical restraints. Children often said they couldn’t breathe or were being hurt as adults gripped their limbs and applied body pressure.
Records also documented numerous incidents when school employees used physical restraint to address a serious safety concern: to stop children from harming themselves, keep them from running into busy parking lots or prevent them from punching classmates during an argument. School workers restrained one boy who tried to bite an employee; he then tried to choke another worker with her own sweatshirt strings during the restraint.
In interviews and records, aides, teachers and workers noted their multiple attempts to calm students and avoid restraint.
To disability advocacy groups, frequent physical restraint at school reflects a failure on the part of the staff. If educators regularly resort to an intervention meant for emergencies, they aren’t addressing the cause of students’ behavior, advocates argue.
“There are children who are restrained and/or secluded frequently, and then they go to a different school environment where it rarely happens at all. The only thing that’s changed is philosophy, the thinking, the awareness,” said Annie Acosta, director of fiscal and family support policy at The Arc, a Washington, D.C.-based disability rights organization. “When you think about it from (the staff’s) perspective, too, restraining kids is not a good day at work.”
About three dozen districts examined for this investigation had restrained children at least 100 times between August 2017 and December 2018. For some, it was many more.
In Mount Prospect, the Northwest Suburban Special Education Organization, or NSSEO, reported 2,078 incidents of physical restraint. The total for the Southern Will County Cooperative for Special Education in Joliet was 1,424. For the Northern Suburban Special Education District in Highland Park, or NSSED, 1,175.
State records show each of those entities enrolls fewer than 425 children.
None of them would provide detailed records that show what types of restraint were used, for how long or for what reasons. They released data only. An NSSED official declined to comment about the district’s large number of restraints, and the other two districts did not respond to requests for comment.
The 1999 law governing restraint and seclusion in schools spelled out that safety was the only acceptable reason to restrain a child.
But over the 15-month period reporters analyzed, schools regularly did not document safety concerns before restraining students. On a single day in September 2018, for example, about two dozen restraints at schools throughout the state began for reasons other than safety.
At a program run by the School Association for Special Education in DuPage County, or SASED, employees used a seated restraint on a child who had run from staff in the hallway. He didn’t start kicking until school workers held his arms, documents show.
A student who refused to stay in one place was restrained in a La Grange Area Department of Special Education program. Staff noted the child yelled and screamed during the restraint.
And at Moye Elementary in the O’Fallon district near St. Louis, staff restrained a girl who was “being unsafe” doing handstands in the timeout room. The restraint lasted 10 minutes.
The SASED executive director declined to be interviewed for this story. The La Grange and O’Fallon districts did not respond to requests for comment.
The proposed update to the law announced this month specifies that restraint may be used only while there’s a “threat of imminent serious physical harm.” It also explicitly states reasons when restraint can’t be used: as discipline, punishment or retaliation, out of convenience for staff or to prevent property damage.
The new rules also say restraint must end immediately when the emergency ends or when students indicate they cannot breathe. Reporters found at least 30 incidents in which students said they could not breathe yet the restraint continued.
Of the 15,000 restraints analyzed by reporters, roughly 1,300 lasted 15 minutes or longer. About 260 went on for more than 30 minutes — with more than a quarter of those involving children being held faceup or facedown on the floor.
Some children had medical conditions that made restraint unsafe for them, but school staff physically restrained them anyway in apparent violation of state law, the investigation found.
In Urbana, workers held a boy facedown on the floor after he threatened to punch them. When they remembered he had asthma, they flipped him over on his back. He was restrained for 18 minutes. In the A.E.R.O. cooperative, the school nurse was called to monitor a boy for seizures while staff restrained him for 29 minutes after he tried to walk out of class.
An Urbana school district spokesman declined to comment on the prone restraint incident but wrote in a statement that the district previously complied with all state rules and will continue to do so as the rules change.
James Gunnell, executive director of A.E.R.O., declined to talk about the district or its approach to restraint. The district did provide a statement saying it was “committed to complying with all laws and regulations relating to time out and physical restraint, and the safety of our students is paramount.”
Three other districts — Proviso special education, SASED and NSSED — provided statements that echoed A.E.R.O.’s almost word for word.
The new rules would ban the use of prone restraint entirely and strictly limit the use of supine restraint, in which the student is restrained faceup.
Superintendent Ayala and other top state education officials said prone restraint was too dangerous to continue to use in schools in part because of the impulse to “pin” kids to the floor.
Restraints that can obstruct breathing, including prone restraints, are prohibited in 31 states for all children and in a handful more just for students with disabilities. Last month, three California school workers were charged with involuntary manslaughter after the death of a student with autism who had been restrained prone.
Reporters’ analysis of school records found that “floor restraints” — both prone and supine — were used in about two dozen of the 100 districts analyzed. Together, districts used these restraints nearly 1,800 times in the 15-month period examined.
Thirteen-hundred of those floor restraints were in the prone position, and three districts accounted for the majority of those incidents. A.E.R.O. used prone restraint 530 times in 15 months; the Southwest Cook County Cooperative Association for Special Education, more than 300 times. Plainfield Community Consolidated School District 202 logged more than 200 prone restraints.
Plainfield school officials said they have stopped using prone and seated restraints since ISBE announced its proposed changes. They said students are restrained only when there is an “imminent danger of harming themselves or someone else.” Southwest Cook officials declined to comment.
In May, 9-year-old Isaiah Knipe was put in a prone restraint on a carpeted floor for throwing a chair soon after he arrived at Middlefork School in Danville, according to records and his family. When he came home on the school bus, his mother saw a rug burn on his left cheekbone.
A reporter asked Isaiah what happened. He said he got the mark because “the floor was hairy.”
“It been hurting for a while but not now,” he said.
The district restrained students 138 times during the 15 months reporters analyzed.
Kristin Dunker, director of the Vermilion Association for Special Education, which includes Middlefork, said she looked into the incident involving Isaiah and did not find the staff member at fault.
“Unfortunately, it just happened,” Dunker said. “When you put your hands on a student, there is a chance for injury. … It is dangerous, and that is why we try not to put our hands on kids.”
Pleas for Relief
Notes kept by school workers describe children struggling with adults while being restrained. Many of the students swear, cry out and beg to be let up.
Training Lessons Lost
In its five-day training course in Peoria, Therapeutic Crisis Intervention didn’t teach restraint until day three.
For two full days, attendees practiced what to say to angry students, how to give them space instead of moving closer, how to demonstrate calm and support without placing a hand on the child.
TCI, which was originally developed at Cornell University for use in residential child care facilities, allowed a reporter to participate in the March session.
Barry, the trainer, knows what it’s like to have to decide quickly whether to restrain a child. He worked with challenging kids in residential facilities.
The goal of crisis training, he told his class, is not to arm adults with weapons but to help children. Too often, he said, “totally unnecessary” restraints are used because adults insist on forcing children to comply with instructions.
“The price of tranquility should never be death,” he said.
Current Illinois law requires that school workers who use physical restraint be trained at least once every two years; it also mandates that they be taught alternatives to restraint, including de-escalation techniques.
The proposed new rules would require at least eight hours of training each year. They also would expand the training to include trauma-informed and restorative practices, behavior management and ways to spot students in distress during a restraint or timeout.
Most schools send delegates to formal training; these workers then return to teach the material to their colleagues.
Records and interviews show the training sometimes is condensed and key points are lost. Five days of training might be reduced to a two- or three-day session when taught back in schools, according to training records obtained from districts through the Freedom of Information Act.
That means employees often know how to restrain children but may not be fully equipped to manage situations so restraint isn’t needed.
At the Special Education District of Lake County, records show, staff members initially get eight hours of training from the Crisis Prevention Institute, or CPI. Refresher training in subsequent years lasts four hours.
In describing the training, a teacher at one of the SEDOL schools, Gages Lake, told a reporter that “more is focused on how to hold a kid and less about de-escalation.”
CPI instruction is used in clinical settings and correctional facilities as well as schools. A typical school training includes learning how to calm an upset child verbally, how to safely break free from a child who is biting or pulling hair and how to perform standing and sitting restraints.
CPI, based in Milwaukee, teaches the restraint method used by many Illinois schools.
Executives from the firm are aware the company’s name has become synonymous with restraint; school workers often refer to restraining children as having “CPI’d” them.
The executives say they want trainees to focus on how to ease tense situations without physical intervention. Seven of the 10 units that make up CPI teaching are about prevention and de-escalation.
“Schools that focus on restraint are ignoring the core of CPI, which is de-escalation,” said CPI Vice President AlGene P. Caraulia.
The CPI and TCI systems typically do not teach prone restraint for schools. Records from school districts that use those systems show they sometimes mix in other training methods that do.
The Menta Method, used in some Illinois schools, teaches that staff should take children from a standing position to seated to facedown, or prone, if necessary. But if the state bans prone restraint, teaching that “descent” to the floor wouldn’t be acceptable anymore.
“Since ISBE originally adopted emergency rules, Menta has suspended all use of floor restraints,” a public relations firm said in a statement on behalf of Menta. “Menta will develop a new, comprehensive staff training program to align with ISBE’s final rules that are expected sometime in April.”
No training is ultimately effective if it isn’t applied, though.
Pat Tingley, a former aide at the Kansas Treatment and Learning Center, said he went through in-depth TCI training on de-escalation and restraint. But back at school, he said, staff members got impatient with children and turned quickly to restraint.
“It went straight from 1 to 100,” he said.
“I was given the tools to do things correctly in training, but once the school bell rang that was out the door,” Tingley said. Then, he clarified. “It is not that the training went out the door. The restraint training was still in use.”
Tingley said he resigned last fall after working at the school for two months. The “last straw,” he said, was seeing a young child being restrained on the ground by five adults as the boy cried and gasped for air in one of the school’s seclusion rooms.
“I couldn’t handle seeing that,” Tingley said. “He was a very good kid always. He had a bad day.”
For years, Jacob Lopez’s family worried that his school was restraining him too often, instead of trying other ways to manage his behavior.
Jacob, who has autism and ADHD, had transferred as a first grader to a special education program run by SPEED Special Education Joint Agreement District 802 in Chicago Heights, south of Chicago. For the next five years, Jacob was repeatedly restrained by workers in different SPEED programs, according to records provided by his family.
His mother, Kristina Soczyk, didn’t understand it.
“If I don’t have to restrain him, why do you have to restrain him?” Soczyk said she asked the school. “I don’t have to put my hands on him. He’s tiny.”
In all, records show, the cooperative restrained children more than 400 times, including in the prone position, over the 15-month period reporters examined.
When Jacob was 6 years old, in 2013, SPEED staff documented restraining him after he kicked his desk and kicked over a chair.
Jacob’s restraint that day and others were described in the documents as putting him in a “bear hug.” His family said he was restrained on the floor and would come home with marks on his arms.
In October 2016, records show, Jacob’s grandmother called the school with concerns about “another injury” to Jacob and asked to revoke the family’s consent to restrain him. She said she worried about the staff’s ability to “safely manage students.”
Soon afterward, Jacob’s mother and grandmother met with school officials, records show.
School notes from the meeting state that “Ms. Soczyk feels that Jacob is having panic attacks because the restraint is being completed in a painful way.” The notes also say “Jacob is blind in his (left) eye and he feels blindsided if he cannot see how he is being restrained.”
SPEED Superintendent Tina Halliman declined to comment about Jacob, citing student confidentiality, but wrote in a statement that the district “complies with all state and federal laws, rules and regulations.”
In spring 2017, an updated behavior plan for Jacob, agreed to by his family, allowed him to be restrained when there were safety concerns and other methods didn’t work.
When his family thought Jacob still was being restrained too often, they moved to Will County. But that didn’t help either. His mother learned that the school district there also sent children with special needs to SPEED programs.
In the end, the family’s solution was to leave Illinois. Soczyk said Jacob, who is now 12, is doing “amazing” in a school in Dyer, Indiana, where he attended his first school dance. His mother said she feels his behavior is being managed appropriately.
They live not more than a mile across the Illinois-Indiana border.
“It is the only reason we moved,” Soczyk said.
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.
Illinois to Take Emergency Action to Halt Isolated Timeouts in Schools
Illinois to Take Emergency Action to Halt Isolated Timeouts in Schools
Gov. J.B. Pritzker called the practice of secluding children “appalling” and said he will work with legislators to end it.
By Jennifer Smith Richards, Jodi S. Cohen, Lakeidra Chavis and Dan Petrella • November 19, 2019
The Illinois State Board of Education announced Wednesday that it will take emergency action to end the seclusion of children alone behind locked doors at schools, saying the practice has been “misused and overused to a shocking extent.”
Responding to a Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois investigation published a day earlier, Gov. J.B. Pritzker called the isolation of children in the state “appalling” and said he directed the education agency to make emergency rules for schools. He will then work with legislators to make the rules into law, he said.
The rules would not totally ban the use of timeout rooms but would end isolation. The state board said children would be put in timeout only if a “trained adult” is in the room and the door is unlocked. Timeouts also must be used only for therapeutic reasons or to protect the safety of students and staff, the board said.
The board also said it will begin collecting data on all instances of timeout and physical restraint in Illinois schools and will investigate “known cases of isolated seclusion to take appropriate disciplinary and corrective action.” State officials had not previously monitored these practices.
The ProPublica Illinois and Tribune investigation, based on tens of thousands of school records, revealed children were put in isolation every school day for reasons that violate the law.
“Isolated seclusion will end now,” Pritzker said in a written statement. “It traumatizes children, does lasting damage to the most vulnerable and violates the most deeply held values of my administration and the State of Illinois. The use of this unacceptable practice in districts around the state for several years is appalling, and I am demanding complete and immediate accountability.”
Earlier in the day, Pritzker told reporters that the action couldn’t wait even “another 24 hours,” and that the rules would be filed Wednesday. The ban will apply to any school that serves public school students, including private schools that students attend when they can’t be served by their home districts. Emergency rules stay in effect for up to 150 days unless an exception is made.
At least one lawmaker said he plans to introduce legislation by the end of the week that would ban isolated timeout in Illinois; he said he has bipartisan support.
State schools Superintendent Carmen Ayala called the investigation’s findings “appalling, inexcusable and deeply saddening.”
“ISBE condemns the unlawful use of isolated seclusion, and we will take immediate steps to ensure the traumatic treatment described in the investigation never happens to another Illinois student,” Ayala said in a statement.
Under current Illinois law, 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.
For the investigation published Tuesday, ProPublica Illinois and the Tribune obtained records documenting more than 20,000 incidents of seclusion 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, and in more than a third of those cases, school employees documented no safety reason for the seclusion.
“This is the first time the governor has stepped up and taken a strong position on this issue. He has succeeded in elevating this in a way we’ve never seen before. It’s really historic,” said Zena Naiditch, who leads Equip for Equality, which acts as a watchdog for people with disabilities in Illinois. “We are optimistic that the state will finally tackle something that has been ignored for decades.”
Naiditch said the group plans to investigate some schools to see firsthand how they are using restraint and seclusion.
Illinois law requires school employees to keep detailed records of the use of isolated timeout. The records obtained by reporters conveyed the distress of students who were put in seclusion rooms alone, sometimes for hours. Aides logged the children crying, screaming, begging to be set free, ramming their heads into the walls and prying at the doors.
The moment-by-moment logs often include the children’s own words while in seclusion.
“Please someone respond to me. … I’m sorry I ripped the paper. I overreacted. … Please just let me out. Is anyone out there?” said a student in Effingham.
Reactions to the investigation — particularly to the words and drawings from children who had been in isolated timeout — were strong. Parents, advocates, school employees and state officials expressed shock that seclusion was being used, often as punishment or to force compliance, in schools across Illinois. Some schools referred to students as “serving time.”
The investigation was based on records from more than 100 school districts. Most of the students who were put in seclusion had disabilities, including autism or behavioral or emotional challenges. Their behavior can be challenging, and records show school employees struggling to deal with disruptive and sometimes violent behavior.
State Rep. Jonathan Carroll, D-Northbrook, said he expects to file legislation that would ban the use of isolated timeout in schools altogether. A former special education teacher, Carroll wrote an impassioned blog post about his own experience as a child in seclusion rooms at school, saying that at 45 he still has “nightmares because of this treatment.”
“Isolation was my personal Hell,” he wrote. “I begged my parents to take me out of that school and when they did, it changed my life.”
“It is a battle I must and will fight,” Carroll said. “To the 12-year-old boy who’s still inside of me dealing with this pain, I will do everything in my power to not have others feel the same way.”
Nineteen states prohibit some form of seclusion at school; four ban it outright. Illinois’ law, enacted in 1999, states that schools can seclude children for safety reasons only.
The law was prompted by public outrage over the use of a 3-foot-square plywood box in Pontiac classrooms to isolate children with disabilities in 1989. Illinois temporarily banned the practice as the state studied it and then enacted guidelines.
According to the emergency rules the state board planned to submit Wednesday, all public and private schools will be required to submit data to the board within 48 hours of any instance of isolated timeout or restraint. Further, all school districts will be required to submit data to the state board on instances of timeout and restraint during the current school year and the prior two.
The board said it will take action against any school that was violating the current law, including by using seclusion as punishment. The governor’s office filed complaints on behalf of students named in the investigation by the Tribune and ProPublica Illinois and is going to require that school districts file records to the state board on all uses of isolation or restraint dating to the 2017-18 school year. The complaints will allow the board to expedite the investigative process and require a report within 60 days.
“Clearly the article highlighted unsafe practices that are happening in schools across the state and need to end,” 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.
“We need to make sure that data is collected from public and private schools and that it is appropriately analyzed to better understand this situation and the supports that students need when they are at their most vulnerable in our schools.”
In addition to seclusion, the emergency rules will address the use of physical restraint, banning restraint types that restrict a student’s ability to breathe, the state board said. The Tribune and ProPublica Illinois have also been examining restraint practices in Illinois, reviewing records and asking officials about its use.
The Illinois Education Association, a teachers union that represents more than 135,000 members, issued a statement supporting the emergency actions.
“Safety is priority number one with our students, especially those who have traumatic pasts and who have special needs,” IEA President Kathi Griffin said in a statement. “Seclusion takes safety out of the mix and adds fear and torment. Calm rooms, or reflection rooms, should provide caring adults, helping to support students and to teach them strategies for self-regulation.”
The Illinois Federation of Teachers, a union representing 103,000 teachers and paraprofessionals, said that it does not support the use of isolation as discipline but that banning the practice doesn’t solve issues of difficult behavior and school discipline. In a written statement, the union said that it wants more discussion and that schools desperately need mental health support for students and better training for teachers and staff.
Darla Knipe, whose son Isaiah was featured in the investigation, said she wasn’t sure what to think after hearing that state officials will ban isolated seclusion of students.
“Will that really be true?” asked Knipe, whose son went to Middlefork School in Danville. “I want to believe it. … I hope they mean what they say and that they will really investigate and something will really be looked at.”
Update, Nov. 21, 2019: On Thursday, state Rep. Jonathan Carroll, D-Northbrook, filed legislation that would completely ban isolated timeout in Illinois. A former special education teacher, he wrote an emotional blog post about his own experience as a child in school seclusion rooms and pledged to work to eliminate seclusion.
Jennifer Smith Richards and Dan Petrella are Chicago Tribune reporters. Jodi S. Cohen and Lakeidra Chavis are reporters for ProPublica Illinois.
How We Reported This Story
How We Reported This Story
We created the first-ever database of thousands of incidents of seclusion in Illinois.
By by Jennifer Smith Richards, Haru Coryne, Jodi S. Cohen and Lakeidra Chavis • November 19, 2019
The state of Illinois does not collect any data on how often public schools put students in seclusion, why they do it or for how long.
Though state rules require schools to document each “isolated timeout” incident in detail, these records are stored by schools and are not submitted for review to the Illinois State Board of Education or any other state agency.
Public school districts are required to provide the U.S. Department of Education certain data on seclusion as well as physical restraint, but the most recent available numbers are from the 2015-16 school year. Government watchdogs also have found that the self-reported data is significantly flawed.
To understand how frequently Illinois schools used seclusion and the reasons why, reporters from the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois used the Freedom of Information Act to seek the detailed incident reports kept by schools in accordance with state rules.
The public records requests asked for all narrative reports on isolated timeout and physical restraint incidents, logs of isolated timeout use, staff training documentation and parent notifications from the 2017-18 school year through early December 2018.
In all, reporters examined nearly 50,000 pages of records.
Over the course of nearly a year, a team of reporters from both news organizations logged each incident into a database, including the location, date, length of time the child was secluded, documented reasons for the seclusion, names of staff involved, whether parents were notified and more. The age, grade, race and gender of the student were noted if this information was available.
Reporters reviewed the reasons school employees gave for using seclusion and grouped them into categories, which included disruption, physical aggression, verbal abuse, damaging property, not participating in class and being disrespectful. For example, if the narrative mentioned a child “kicking staff,” it was categorized as physical aggression.
Illinois law allows seclusion only when students pose a safety threat to themselves or others, such as by attacking an employee or fellow student. Reporters noted in the database whether school employees had documented such a safety issue and, if so, whether it occurred before or after the start of the isolated timeout.
Illinois has more than 900 school districts, including 68 regional districts or cooperatives that serve only students with special needs. Reporters focused their records requests on the 133 districts that reported to the federal government that they had secluded students in the 2015-16 school year, the most recent available data.
Reporters filed public-records requests with all of these districts, plus the state’s special-education districts and cooperatives, regardless of their federal reporting status.
In a handful of cases, parents contacted reporters to say their district was using seclusion even though it hadn’t reported doing so to the federal government. Reporters sought records from those districts too.
Nearly 200 districts responded to the requests and more than 100 provided records documenting their use of seclusion or restraint.
Some districts said they had no records to provide because they no longer use these practices. Some special-education cooperatives said that although they offer certain educational programs, they do not operate schools and thus had no seclusion or restraint incidents to report.
Other school districts provided individual incident summaries, but not full reports. Some districts that initially denied the records request later provided a total number of seclusion incidents after a ProPublica lawyer intervened; these were included in the database, but it was impossible to assess whether they followed state seclusion rules.
Nine districts refused to provide any records. They were Barrington 220, Collinsville 10, Massac 1, Rock Island-Milan 41, Shawnee 84, West Carroll 314, Woodridge 68, East St. Louis Area Joint Agreement and the Southern Will County Cooperative for Special Education.
In all, reporters were able to quantify about 20,000 seclusions by 83 districts over the 15-month time period examined. They also documented incidents of physical restraint to be explored in an upcoming story.
Not all records that districts provided were included in the database. In some cases, districts sent incident reports detailing interventions that did not qualify as isolated timeout under Illinois law, such as when students went to a seclusion room voluntarily to calm down and left when they wanted. Those cases were excluded.
Conversely, reporters sometimes included incidents in the database that school officials did not consider to be isolated timeouts. For example, some officials said the door of the timeout room had to be closed for the incident to qualify as seclusion. Reporters included such cases in the analysis if the students were not free to leave, in accordance with Illinois rules.
Because the forms used to document isolated timeouts varied from district to district, a larger team of reporters spot-checked a sample of records to ensure that data had been entered consistently across districts and to look for systemic flaws in the data entry.
The team examined a sample of 631 records from 53 districts, focusing on 14 fields critical to the reporting. If spot-checkers did not agree with the way a particular record was entered into the database, they flagged it for further investigation, and the original reporting team determined whether an error had occurred. Although a small percentage of fields contained such disagreements, no widespread problems were found.
In addition to the records requests used to create the database, reporters filed a separate set of requests designed to test the accuracy of the seclusion and restraint data collected by the U.S. Department of Education from Illinois schools.
For 75 randomly selected districts that had reported zero instances of seclusion to the federal government for the 2015-16 school year, reporters asked officials for incident reports, logs and parental notifications dating to 2015 to check whether some of those districts had in fact isolated children during that period.
To understand the physical spaces in which children were isolated, reporters asked more than 20 districts to allow them to visit. Only three did. Reporters then filed an additional 20 public-records requests for floor plans, images, dimensions and other information about timeout rooms.
The investigation also drew on reviews of civil lawsuits, federal and state special-education complaints, police reports, injury reports, school handbooks and more than 120 interviews with experts, parents, children, advocates and school employees. In the story, reporters named students only with the permission of their families.
Readers Choked Back Tears. Some Struggled to Keep Reading. We Understand.
Readers Choked Back Tears. Some Struggled to Keep Reading. We Understand.
A day after our reporting, Illinois ended isolated seclusion of children in schools across the state. What happened? Children’s voices were heard.
By Jodi S. Cohen, Jennifer Smith Richards and Lakeidra Chavis • November 22, 2019
This week, we published an investigation in collaboration with the Chicago Tribune about the use — and misuse — of seclusion rooms that children are shut inside, alone, in public schools across Illinois.
We had worked on the story for nearly a year. Day after day, night after night, we read the details of more than 20,000 incidents of “isolated timeout” and entered them by hand into a database we created. We did the same for physical restraint, when staff members put their hands on a child; we’ll publish that story in the next few weeks.
Many of the isolated timeout incident reports we read — some 50,000 pages — included what happened to children in seclusion, often in their own words as school employees kept moment-by-moment logs. The children, most of them with disabilities, begged to be let out, cried for their parents, expressed despair. We included their quotes throughout our story. We thought it was crucial that their voices be heard.
And then, the day after the investigation published, Illinois officials announced an immediate ban on secluding students alone, in locked rooms. Gov. J.B. Pritzker called the practice “appalling” and said: “Isolated seclusion will end now; it traumatizes children, does lasting damage to the most vulnerable and violates the most deeply held values of my administration and the State of Illinois.”
State schools Superintendent Carmen Ayala said that isolated timeout and physical restraint had been “misused and overused to a shocking extent.” “The data and stories from students and parents are appalling, inexcusable and deeply saddening,” she said.
The emergency rules, filed Wednesday, don’t ban the use of timeout rooms entirely but say that a trained adult must be in the room with the child and the door can’t be locked. If a timeout with an adult is used, it must be only for therapeutic reasons or to protect the safety of students and staff. Our investigation found that it was often being used illegally — as punishment, to force compliance or to contain disruptive students.
The new rules also require school districts to provide data to the Illinois State Board of Education on all instances of timeout and restraint dating back three school years. ISBE, which previously had not monitored seclusion or restraint, is now empowered to investigate schools’ use of these practices and take “appropriate disciplinary and corrective action.”
Then, on Thursday, Rep. Jonathan Carroll, D-Northbrook, filed legislation that would completely ban isolated timeout in Illinois. A former special education teacher, he wrote an emotional blog post about his own experience as a child in school seclusion rooms, saying that, at 45, he still has “nightmares because of this treatment.”
That’s a lot of swift action.
Throughout the past year, we met with families all around the state whose children spent time in seclusion. These families weren’t seeking attention. Frankly, they were shocked that anyone cared. They inevitably asked what we thought or hoped would happen by writing about seclusion.
We told them we didn’t know. We would write the stories and maybe someone would listen.
What happened was that readers of ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune, including state officials with the power to act, listened to the children’s voices and their words.
“Why? Why are you doing this to me?” — a student at Bridges Learning Center, a school near Centralia.
“Please, please, please open the door. Please, I’ll be good. Open the door and I’ll be quiet.” — an elementary student in Mattoon.
“I’m crying alone!” — an elementary student at Kansas Treatment and Learning Center in Kansas, Illinois.
Many readers have told us they struggled to hold back tears as they read the words of these children. Some told us they had to put the story down for a while, regain composure and return to it later.
When reading their words and hearing their voices over the past year, we, too, were moved. We were disturbed. We cried.
Illinois’ current law mandated that school employees document seclusion incidents, but there was no requirement that anyone read them. The state didn’t collect data to know how often it was being used.
That’s why we took this on. Isn’t it better to know?
As Ayala noted, it was the data we collected and analyzed, combined with the children’s voices, that led to the state’s quick action.
We hope you will read the story, too, and let us know what you think. Thank you to everyone who has already reached out. You can reach us at [email protected].