As the Ohio Board of Education considers a plan regulating the use of restraint and seclusion rooms in public schools, local educators are supporting them as a useful behavior management tool so long as they are used appropriately.
Seclusion rooms are enclosed spaces used to calm or restrain children who become violent. Seclusion — and restraint — are often used on children with disabilities.
Earlier this year, a Columbus student claimed that two instructors had locked him into a small room and that one of the instructors physically harmed him while the other held the door shut.
Ohio does not currently regulate the use of seclusion in schools, and there is no state policy on restraint in public schools.
The state board of education delayed its vote regarding a seclusion and restraint policy earlier this month, because the board wanted more time to review public comments. According to John Charlton of the Ohio Department of Education, the state school board will likely vote to draft a model policy during its January 14-15 meeting.
The policy, which could be approved sometime in March, would go into effect by the start of the 2013-14 school year. The regulations the state board is considering would require schools to track and report how often they restrain or seclude children. They also call for: limiting use of seclusion rooms to cases of “immediate threat” of physical harm; notifying parents if their children are secluded or restrained; and training staff in behavior management techniques.
The American Association of School Administrators supported schools’ use of restraint and seclusion last year. That drew a harsh response from The Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, a nonprofit advocacy organization for persons with significant disabilities.
Executive Director Barb Trader says the federal government posted a document outlining 15 principles for restraint and seclusion prevention. She says those federal guidelines should be followed when states make their public school policies.
“(The use of seclusion and restraint) is a really abusive practice that is so deeply traumatizing to children. In my opinion, it should be banned,” Trader said. “It really needs to be viewed akin to solitary confinement. They don’t calm them down (by placing a student in seclusion or restraints). If you put anybody in a room for a long period of time, it becomes a panic experience. Many rooms are dark, with no windows or a place to sit. It’s really threatening environment.”
Brenda Paget, Executive Director of Special Services at Lakota Local Schools, recently testified before the state board about seclusion room use.
“At Lakota, we do have classrooms (for seclusion use). We have two spaces within our district that are attached to classrooms where we work with students who have been identified with emotional disturbances,” she said. “However, just because a student is in that classroom does not automatically mean that the seclusion room is being utilized. It is up to the IEP (Individualized Education Program) team to make that determination as to how the seclusion room is used.”
Lakota’s two seclusion rooms have soft walls and flooring for the student’s safety, Padget said.
“It’s typically a smaller space within the classroom. A lot of times the floor is carpeted and the walls have soft tiles,” she said. “It has whatever that child needs. If the student requires sensory needs, maybe they’d need a bean bag chair.”
Fairfield City Schools uses three seclusion rooms.
“The rooms are used as sensory ‘safe zone’ rooms. Students who are feeling anxiety, anger, etc. may ask to go to the sensory room to do their assignments, bounce on a ball, exercise, etc.,” said Fairfield district spokeswoman Gina Gentry-Fletcher. “They independently go into the space, but are not secluded. The only time that a student would enter the safe zone directed by the staff would be in the instance that the student could not be deescalated by the Crisis Prevention Techniques and was at risk of injuring himself or other.”
The amount of time a student spends in seclusion varies.
An IEP team, consisting of teachers and special needs educators and the student’s parents, works together to determine the process that is to be involved in order to calm the child. Whenever a student is placed into seclusion, the parent is informed of the matter, details of the situation are written down and a teacher or other qualified staff member remains with the student throughout the session.
“Monroe has a sensory room that has been used by one student this year for instances where high levels of stress and anxiety have interrupted the learning process,” said Phil Cagwin, Monroe’s interim superintendent. “In the case of that student, the parents have been aware and notified, the student has been supervised, and the incidents are documented. The sensory room can serve a purpose in calming students who are highly stressed and unable to self-regulate. It provides a quiet space away from peers where the student can defuse and then return to the classroom, ready to participate in the educational process.”
District spokeswoman Joni Copas said Hamilton City Schools do not implement restraint or seclusion. “However, students may choose to go to another environment when they feel they need to,” she said.
Special Education Coordinator Deborah Turner said seclusion rooms are used in Middletown City Schools as a way for students to find a quiet separate space away from their peers in order to collect themselves. “They are not used as a means of punishing students by excluding them,” she said.
Turner said the rooms are used when students struggle to control their emotions or for students who are in danger of harming themselves or others.
“Students who struggle to control their emotions are taught a continuum of coping skills and strategies, including how to recognize their own red flags and their own escalating behavior. … (When students endanger themselves and others), students are monitored closely and coached through the process to regain control,” Turner said.
Some school districts don’t actually have a seclusion room available, but the teachers are taught the proper calming techniques to help the students regain their composure. Franklin City Schools Superintendent Arnol Elam said that’s the case in his district.
“Individualized Education Programs (IEP) are set up for our special needs students,” he explained. “They are identified with specific characteristics, and it is our job to remove them from whatever stimulus causing the problem, so that we can get the students deescalated. We have deescalation techniques and sensory training that we use, depending on the strategies of the IEP. The teachers are trained to help them.”
Turner said the rooms are very helpful to the students, and she supports their use.
“Having worked in schools that support students identified with Severe Behavior Handicaps and Emotional Disturbances, both with and without seclusion rooms, I have found that there is great benefit in having this separate space available so long as it is utilized appropriately,” she said. “Students are able to have a safe place to go to regain control, instead of losing control, hurting himself or herself or someone else in the process, and then being disciplined and possibly suspended or expelled from school.
“More importantly, the students are able to maintain peer relationships and save themselves the embarrassment that often comes with uncontrolled public behavior,” she said. “The goal of a seclusion room is to afford students an opportunity to work through the situation, regain control of their behavior and return to their school routine.”