'Scream Rooms' in Schools Are Being Taken to a Frightening New Level
Remember when acting out in school got you time with the principal or detention? Those are dream scenarios compared with the handcuffs, pepper spray, Tasers, and isolation rooms that unruly kids in Washington state could face for breaking school rules.
Washington’s Bellevue School District recently came under fire for a policy that intended to sanction the use of isolation rooms—cell-like spaces that students are confined to involuntarily—for spontaneous misbehavior. The disciplinary policy was at odds with state guidelines, which only allow the use of seclusion when students are in imminent danger of physically harming themselves or others.
Parents were further distressed by the vague language in the district’s policy that would OK the use of restraints such as handcuffs and deterrents such as Tasers and pepper spray. Local TV affiliate Q13Fox reported that one parent told the school board, “Putting in language like this will only give permission to some staff members to just do what’s convenient and not right.” Bellevue School Board President Steve McConnell responded by telling Yahoo Shine, “No teachers in our school district use Tasers or chemical sprays on special needs students.”
The dustup renewed a fierce debate over the use of seclusion time-outs and restraints in public and private schools. In recent years, they’ve stoked outrage among parents, educators, and legislators owing to multiple resulting injuries and deaths.
Still, their prevalence is shockingly widespread. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Education for Civil Rights, more than 110,000 students experienced restraint or seclusion from 2011 to 2012. With seclusion practices, children are routinely locked in padded isolation rooms for hours without bathroom breaks or monitoring. Given the nickname that sounds right at home in an Eli Roth film, it’s no wonder these so-called scream rooms have been host to their fair share of tragic incidents. In 2004, 13-year-old Jonathan King hanged himself in a concrete isolation room in his Georgia school using a cord he’d been given as a belt. It was not his first time in the “time-out” space; he had repeatedly asked not to be confined there and had threatened suicide to teachers weeks earlier.
Restraint practices aren’t any less appalling. A 2012 ABC News investigation reported students being sat on by school employees, held down in a prone position, and stuffed into drawstring “sensory bags”—essentially glorified duffel bags.
Many special education experts say these practices are especially deleterious to students with autism and disabilities who may require special monitoring and have underlying health issues. A 15-year-old Michigan teenager with autism who was pinned down for more than an hour by school employees became the second child in his state to die from restraint techniques, according to the National Disability Rights Network. In another horrifying incident, a seven-year-old girl diagnosed with emotional problems and ADHD was suffocated to death after being restrained by multiple staffers at a mental health day treatment facility. Her crime? Blowing bubbles in her milk during a time-out.
The barbarism of seclusion and restraint policies isn’t the only cause for concern. There’s also a high probability that these practices will be used for the wrong reasons. A 2007 study published in the Journal of At-Risk Issues found that seclusion of at-risk students was initiated more frequently for nonviolent behaviors (leaving an assigned area or disrupting class) than for the intended purpose of curbing physical aggression.
Despite the myriad issues with physical restraint and unsupervised seclusion, no research has found any therapeutic and educational benefit to either one. "It's shown no efficacy in reducing maladaptive behavior, and it’s a crisis-based intervention only," said Joseph B. Ryan, professor in the School of Education at Clemson University. Even in a crisis, employing restraints and seclusion are bad moves. "You’re aggravating a student that you’re trying to pacify, so it violates a lot of the evidence-based procedures on how you should respond to a child," Ryan said. "And if you use it as a disciplinary method it can actually escalate aggression."
The U.S. Department of Education has set guidelines restricting the use of these methods in classrooms to instances when students are in imminent physical danger. Even with DOE oversight, no federal law is on the books to enforce the rules. Only 30 states have any laws on the practices, and 18 states require parental notification of their use. A report by the office of Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, found that existing laws and regulations impede families' ability to bring cases to court. Rather, they force families to remove children from school to stop the practices of restraint or seclusion.
This year Harkin proposed the Keeping All Students Safe Act, which would outlaw dangerous seclusion and restraint practices and limit restraints to emergency situations. It would also require extensive training of school employees and parental notification within 24 hours of the use of restraints or seclusion. For what it’s worth, McConnell, the Bellevue School Board president, told Yahoo Shine that parents of students who are placed in an isolation room receive verbal notification within 24 hours and a written account within five days.
After a June 24 congressional briefing on restraint and seclusion in schools, the Bellevue School Board will do its own deliberating on July 1. That’s when it'll conduct a hearing to pass a revised version of its seclusion and restraint policy that contains protections against inappropriate isolation and restraint of students and bans their use as forms of discipline or punishment.