Children as young as five years old, many of them with disabilities, have been shut inside designated isolation rooms within their Illinois public schools. According to data collected by the Chicago Tribune, some children scream, claw at windows and padded walls, throw themselves against the locked door, and wet their pants. They might be in there for minutes—or even hours. Meanwhile, an adult stays outside the room, keeping record.
Students may be placed in an isolation space for a variety of reasons. However, it was discovered that the Illinois public school practice was often used unlawfully—as a punishment rather than as a protection.
Horrifying? You bet. Legal? Yup. Commonly practiced? Shockingly, yes. Remind you of a prison instead of an educational institution? Same.
The Tribune found that from 2017-2018, Illinois public schools had over 20,000—yes, 20,000–incidents of student isolation. But the Illinois State Board of Education wasn’t aware of these. Why? Because the ISBE doesn’t monitor the practice. Until now.
In late November, the ISBE issued an emergency order, banning isolation seclusion practices in Illinois public schools. Time outs can still happen, but only under specific circumstances. A trained adult must be present, the door to the space must remain unlocked, and the time-out is reported to the ISBE and the student’s parents. Most importantly, the time-out must be necessary—meaning for safety or therapeutic reasons only.
According to ProPublica Illinois, the organization that joined the Tribune in investigating the shocking isolation accusations against some Illinois public schools, 19 states have guidelines prohibiting isolation in some form. Four states outright ban isolation of students in public schools.
Initially, I thought there was no way the posts from special needs’ parents that flooded my newsfeed were legit. How in the world is it ever okay to force students with autism, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, or another special need into an isolated space? And not just an isolated space, but sometimes into a locked or unsupervised space?
The inhumane treatment of children with special needs isn’t unheard of. Take, for example, a Washington school that came under fire for seating an 11-year-old student with autism and an autoimmune disease in a restroom to do his “quiet work.” His mother, Danielle Goodwin, reported that her son was allowed to work in his previous school’s library, but his current school told Goodwin this wasn’t an option—instead placing the boy’s desk in a bathroom.
Appalling? You bet. Not only was the boy to work in the restroom, but he was told he could nap in there as well. Goodwin reported that her son was given a camping mat and pillow that he could use on the bathroom floor. After photographing her son inside his “classroom,” she pulled him from the school and shared the story—which went viral—on Facebook.
The horror of isolating students with special needs hits home for me. One of my children has multiple diagnoses—putting them in the special needs category. There were seasons and even entire semesters when my child struggled, manifesting as epic meltdowns. One very patient teacher would take my child into the hallway to pace, or the occupational therapy room to work out their energy on the swing and gymnastics mats. Once my child returned to a calm state, they would discuss what was going on and return to the general education classroom.
What didn’t happen? My child was never shoved into a bathroom or closet and forced to rage in the confines of cement walls. Furthermore, recess wasn’t revoked, nor was a behavioral clip chart utilized. What worked? Connection with a trusted adult — their teacher, aide or other trusted adult — and time.
School is supposed to be a place of learning and safety for all students, regardless of need and ability. Children with special needs and children of color, both of which apply to my own child, are particularly vulnerable to unlawful use of isolation, physical restraint, and even arrest—even for minor infractions. Black students are three-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers.
Six-year-old Kaia Rolle was arrested by her Orlando school’s resource officer, Dennis Turner. Kaia’s offense? Kicking. Kaia wasn’t placed in an isolation room at the school. Rather, she was transported to a juvenile detention facility. Later, Turner was fired and misdemeanor charges against Kaia were dropped. But the damage had already been done. A little black girl had already faced unjust humiliation and subsequent trauma, at the hands of those who promised to educate her and keep her safe.
The ISBE is not only taking a stand on student isolation, but also on physical restraint. According to their emergency order, public school staff cannot impair a student’s ability to speak or breathe, and there will be guidelines when physical restraint is permitted.
So there are many actions Illinois schools can no longer practice—but what can they do? What are the possible solutions to help students who are struggling, whether they have special needs or not?
Megan Parise, a school psychologist in Illinois, shared with Scary Mommy, “Ideally, I think schools should have a designated ‘safe room’ that is staffed by someone trained in working through social, emotional, and behavioral issues. Students would be given time to cool down, and then provided strategies to help them work through an issue.” She added, “It would be a safe, supported, therapeutic environment.”
Additionally, schools can work to be proactive rather than rely on punishments in an attempt to deter students. Replace detention with meditation and yoga. Stop punishing energetic kids by taking away recess. And while we’re at it, let’s offer more recess—because gross motor play, time to socialize, and fresh air can do a lot of good. We need more trained staff in every school. And can we please ditch shaming practices like the behavioral clip charts already?
Othering children with special needs who are already working extra hard every day to keep themselves together is ableist. Every school needs to have a safe and calming space—and practices–for students. Thankfully, Illinois is taking steps in the right direction to ensure that happens.