“Please someone respond to me,” notes document another child pleading. “I’m sorry I ripped the paper. I overreacted. … Please just let me out. Is anyone out there?”
A first-grader started banging his head against concrete and plywood walls, leading a staffer to write at one point, “Nurse filling out concussion form,” according to the investigation. But a month later, notes indicate, he was back in the room — hurting himself again and so dizzy when he stood up that he “almost fell over.”
These accounts and more, published Tuesday in ProPublica and the Tribune’s exposé of school practices across Illinois, have stirred an outcry from people shocked that a punishment found in prisons would be common in classrooms. Reporters reviewed notes from lockups that were triggered by misbehavior as minor as failing to complete work and using “raised voice tones,” in apparent violation of state law.
The revelations have also prompted what advocates call long-overdue action from government officials: On Wednesday, at the urging of Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D), the Illinois State Board of Education vowed emergency action to ban “isolated seclusion” in its schools.
“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,” Pritzker tweeted.
While Illinois stands out for secluding children in locked rooms — it turned to the practice more than any other state in the 2013-2014 school year, according to the latest available federal data — many are hoping the momentum for reform translates nationwide. Earlier this year, a congressional committee discussed a national bill to outlaw seclusion in public schools with federal funding. But the measure hasn’t moved forward.
“I hope this important [ProPublica-Tribune] story is seen by every member of Congress,” said Zena Naiditch,president of Equip for Equality,which advocates for people with disabilities. “I have no doubt that what we’re seeing in Illinois is occurring around the country.”
Federal officials have cautioned against the overuse of seclusion, and the Department of Education says it should be a last resort when “a child’s behavior poses imminent danger of serious physical harm to self or others.” Illinois is less stringent, saying a child can be locked in a room over physical safety concerns.
Even with those looser standards, many solitary timeouts reviewed by ProPublica and the Tribune appeared to violate state law. Among about 12,000 documented incidents where staff indicated a reason for the timeout, more than a third involved no reported safety issue, the news organizations said.
Isolation can lead to both physical injury and psychological scars, say researchers and advocates, and the Education Department says there’s no evidence that restraining or secluding students is effective in changing behavior.
But schools in Illinois routinely turned to the practice, keeping kids in closetlike spaces known by soothing names such as “quiet room,” “calming room” and “Blue Room,” according to ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune. The median duration kids stayed in a seclusion room was 22 minutes, but more than 1,300 of the timeouts stretched beyond an hour. One lasted nearly half a day.
In one timeout from last year reported by the news organizations, Jace Gill wet his pants shortly into his time in a five-foot-square room.
Within about half an hour, he had also defecated: “Dancing in feces. Doing the twist,” a staffer wrote, according to ProPublica and the Tribune. By the time he got out — 80 minutes after being banished from class for pushing a book off a table and trying to leave — he’d banged on walls and cried for his mother.
According to the news investigation, Jace was shut in at least 28 times during the 2017-2018 school year. Kylee Beaven, his mother, told reporters that school staff assured her Jace would not be put in the quiet room alone.
“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.”
An official at Jace’s school district declined to provide comment to The Washington Post on Wednesday. But staff called the investigation findings troubling last spring when presented with some of the documents reporters had obtained.
“When we read it, it reads punitive,” said Jeremy Doughty, assistant director at Eastern Illinois Area Special Education.
“Is this something that we’re ashamed of? It’s not our finest,” another administrator told ProPublica and the Tribune before reportedly denying them access to the school’s seclusion rooms.
Some schools have defended their practices, saying isolation can be an important tool.
“If (students are) committed to hurting someone, that room is a way to keep them safe,” one staffer told ProPublica and the Tribune.
The stories were a punch in the gut to state Rep. Jonathan Carroll (D), who says he still remembers the smell and carpeted walls of the small room where his Illinois school once locked him in. Diagnosed with ADHD at a time when the condition was poorly understood, Carroll said, he faced repeated isolation-as-punishment. He found it terrifying — but he thought it was a thing of the past.
“This is still happening?” he recalled thinking as he read the report. He plans to introduce legislation banning the practice.
“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,” he wrote Wednesday.
Carroll told The Post that his bill is still being fine-tuned but will go further than the Board of Education’s plans, which would allow seclusion with an adult in the room. He thinks action is coming far too late from the board, which did not respond to questions Wednesday.
“Why the heck was this going on on your watch?” Carroll asked of the board.
Before Wednesday’s promise of immediate action, the Board of Education told ProPublica and the Tribune that it would clarify that seclusion is an emergency measure but would need legislation to start monitoring the punishment’s use.
But after publication, and a flood of criticism, the board announced its emergency action. It also pledged to collect data on every use of timeouts and physical restraints in schools and said it would investigate all known cases of the seclusions.
Naiditch, from Equip for Equality, is pleased to see action on an issue that she says her group has raised alarms about for years. But she wants officials to forbid schools from subjecting students to any kind of restraint or seclusion, adult in the room or not. Otherwise, she worries that some schools will continue to break the rules.
“What we’ve seen in the mental health system is, whatever the legal requirements are, the practices end up being much more lax,” she said.
She worries that, crafted the wrong way, bills on isolated timeouts in schools could just help legitimize the practice. Years ago, she opposed one federal measure that would have curbed seclusion and restraint but allowed the tactics if they were approved in a student’s individual education plan.
“That would do absolutely nothing to prevent these kinds of abuses,” she said.