What You Should Know About Elementary School “Calm” and “Focus” Rooms

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Texas provides teachers with a fairly wide array of disciplinary tools: it’s one of just nineteen states that allow corporal punishment, and parents who want to prevent their children from being struck by a teacher have to opt-out from allowing it (which, as the Houston Chronicle reported last November, is an option that only became available to them in 2012). Not every school district allows spankings, of course, but one that does—New Braunfels ISD—is getting some attention for a different kind of punishment that its teachers are inflicting on kids as young as nine. Namely, the use of “focus rooms” to lock kids up until they behave.

As KSAT reports

The New Braunfels Independent School District is currently investigating discipline procedures at one of its elementary schools after a parent claimed her child was confined to a room as punishment.

[A]ccording to that parent, when she asked to see her son, she was eventually led to a scene that shocked her.

Her son called it a “focus room” and when the parent saw it, she dropped her belongings on the floor and started taking pictures.

The boy’s parents put together a website called “The Focus Room Horror” to shed some light on what they found. The room features a small circle drawn on the floor, in which their son—Alex—was told he must sit in for ninety minutes before he’d be allowed to leave, and the parents claim that the room was extremely cold (the boy keeps his arms pulled into his sleeves for warmth, and the blog states that Alex’s mother wasn’t allowed back into the room to photograph the thermostat). And the story Alex tells his parents about the focus room does indeed sound horrific: 

Parents — What is that room Alex?

Alex — It’s called the “focus room”. And it’s where bad children go and serve their in-school suspension (ISS).

Parents — How many times have you been in that room?

Alex Almost every day, once for two straight days.

Parents Is it always cold?

Alex Yes! I asked if I could get my jacket and was told no, the teacher put her own jacket on and said “It’s sure nice to be warm”.

Parents Are they mean to you in that room?

Alex Yes, sometimes they shout at me and say rude things.

Parents What rude things do they say?

Alex I don’t know, I don’t want to talk about it.

Parents What if you get hungry or need to go to the bathroom?

Alex You’re not allowed! You don’t get your regular snack either!

Parents Are you allowed to get any exercise?

Alex No, I’m stuck there all day and if I don’t do what they tell me, they make me stay there longer. I have to go back tomorrow since I couldn’t sit in the circle because I was too cold.

All of that sounds fairly horrible—misbehavior or not. 

It’s also fair to be skeptical. Adults who work with children in Texas have been accused of monstrous acts before that turned out to be false, but the situation in New Braunfels seems rather different from cases of witch hysteria. For one, Alex’s mother has photographs, and the school itself sent a letter to parents confirming that “focus rooms” and “safe rooms” are in use at the school: 

“Due to privacy laws, we are not able to provide any more detail about the student or the situation. You may hear the term ‘focus room’ or ‘safe room.’ These are two different environments. A ‘focus room’ is a classroom environment that allows for behavior intervention such as social skills lessons and counseling. A ‘safe room’ is used in times when a child is a danger to himself/herself or others.”

So while we can’t confirm details about the temperature of the room, or if teachers actually appear in the room to make fun of the children for being cold, it appears to be the case that these isolation tactics are being utilized against small children. 

Many of these rooms also appear to be illegal—despite being in use in places besides New Braunfels. The Texas Education Code Sec. 37.0021 (b)(2) specifically forbids “seclusion” in a room smaller than fifty square feet as a punishment, but an investigation in Plano in April found more than one hundred “calm rooms”—essentially the same as “focus rooms”—in use in Plano ISD. NBC DFW found that five other Dallas-area school districts employed similar rooms, and often used them for special education students as well. (The TEC prohibits any students who receive special education services from being placed in any locked space.) 

When NBC 5 Investigates first questioned Plano ISD last fall, the district said “students are not placed in these rooms . . . students may access the rooms when they need a quiet calm environment” and that the “door is not held shut from the outside.”

Plano ISD also said all of the rooms were larger than 50 square feet, but that wasn’t true.

District records obtained by NBC 5 Investigates now show the room Micah was held in was just 36 square feet.

Records show as of December, Plano had at 100 calm rooms district wide. At least 15 were smaller than the required 50 square feet.

What was reported at Plano ISD is similar to what Alex and his parents accuse Carl Schurz Elementary’s staff of: taunting and mocking children, and otherwise taking an approach to punishment that’s decidedly cruel.

(h/t Gawkerimage via helpingalex.squarespace.com)

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