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Schools Punished Kids by Putting Them in Solitary Boxes

Photograph by Facebook/Katrina Litchfield

Photos of seclusion rooms primarily used in early elementary grades in Iowa have recently resurfaced, fueling a debate about where to draw the line when it comes to discipline or punishment in schools. Some of these rooms pictured are unfinished pine boxes, as small as six feet by six feet, or have black padding on the walls with little light or ventilation.

Previously known as "timeout rooms," these isolated spaces were intended to hold children as a last-resort safety measure to protect students from hurting themselves or others, but were realistically used even in much more minor cases and sometimes for longer than an hour.

Outrage in the last few years led to an investigation by the state Department of Education, new recommendations by the Iowa City Community School District's Time Out Room Task Force and most recently a petition to revise school codes on restraint, physical confinement and detention.

Still, seclusion rooms are not completely banned this year, though the school district told USA Today in June, "any of the concerns have already been addressed" and "the district will continue to develop and implement systemic changes that positively impact the learning environment for all students." Recommended changes include more training and behavior de-escalation strategies for staff and improving communication about seclusion for parents.

In June, the state Department of Education ruled that some of the rooms' uses were in violation of state and federal laws. Out of 455 incidents from December 2015 to December 2016, 4 percent of those cases found district staff used seclusion rooms for minor infractions, like stepping out of line, having "attitude" or using foul language. These incidents involved 64 children, many of which were placed in seclusion multiple times (18 of them were shut in there six or more times). Kids were secluded for an average of 20 to 29 minutes.

Tammy Mims, a former Cedar Rapids resident, told The Progressive that her third grader was locked inside an unapproved room fashioned from a utility closet. The legal guardian could hear her in the background screaming to be let out when the school called her.

"If I was to do what they did, it would be child abuse," Mims said. "Why is it OK for the school district to do that to a child?"

According to the Iowa Department of Education's online version of Chapter 103, the area of confinement and detention should be of "reasonable dimensions" with "sufficient light and adequate ventilation for human habitation" and "comfortable temperature." Schools must attempt to notify a child's parent or guardian "on the same day the child is subjected to physical restraint or physical confinement and detention."

But schools do not need parental consent, and often parents didn't know about seclusion rooms until their child was put in one.

Last year, the Gazette reported concerns about the use of these rooms when it comes to special needs students. These students generally have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that legally documents what a student's needs are and how the district plans to meet those needs. Any child could still go to seclusion if behavior warranted it.

Tammy Nyden told the Gazette that she lost track of how many times her son, who has Tourette’s syndrome, was put into seclusion for throwing objects, hitting and screaming threats. But being shut in a 6'x6' room didn't calm him.

Actually, being put in the seclusion room sometimes ramped up children's disruptive or dangerous behavior instead of calming them, which leads to more questions about whether this type of isolation is more harmful than helpful. Some parents even worry that taking kids away from their peers is more damaging and can invalidate children's feelings.

Isolation rooms aren't only an issue in Iowa. In January 2016, parents were furious that these rooms existed in an elementary school in Kansas. In the first half of last year, staff at a Seattle high school confined a student with a developmental disability 617 times despite state laws. And one of the most heartbreaking example was back in 2004, when a 13-year-old in a north Georgia special education school hung himself after spending timeout in a prison-like concrete room latched from the outside.

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