School is supposed to be a place where students feel safe. Every day, parents entrust their children with school officials with the understanding that they will be secure, supported, and free from harm. But it appears that dozens of North Texas schools have thrown that sense of trust into question with some disturbing disciplinary actions.
A troubling new report by NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth found dozens of schools have been relying on small “recovery rooms” in order to deescalate students with disabilities or behavioral issues. Focusing on the Mansfield Independent School District, which spans Mansfield and portions of Arlington, Burleson, and Grand Prairie, the four-month investigation revealed these rooms were used, incredibly, about 800 times during the 2013-2014 academic year. “In the second installment of its investigation, NBC found at least five other North Texas school districts had designated time-out rooms for students, especially special education ones.”
One of the rooms that NBC captured on camera was bare and stark, with “padded floors, plain walls and no windows,” while others had concrete floors. Students had questionable access to the bathroom and some even urinated on the floor (which school officials attributed to the behavioral problems in question).
In some cases, “students with autism or other learning challenges may be forced to sit in them for part of a school day.” According to district records, special education students who display “physical aggression” could find themselves in “the isolation center for the remainder of the day, or the following day, depending on when the aggression occurs.” Worse still, the schools did not even have to notify parents when their children were placed in recovery rooms unless school staff physically restrained them.
Understandably, disability advocates were concerned about the situation. As NBC 5 reports:
“These types of rooms should never be used, ever, not by a school,” said Constance Wannamaker, an attorney for Disability Rights Texas, an independent nonprofit that’s part of the system set up by the federal government to protect disabled students.
“These are not hospitals. These are not psychiatric facilities. These are schools,” said Wannamaker.
Interviews with officials did little to help the district’s case. District Spokesman Richie Escovedo said the rooms are not locked or unattended, but he “wasn’t sure” if some students were relegated to recovery rooms for hours. The TEA is not currently commenting on the issue due to a pending lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Texas.
These findings are disturbing on many levels.
The Texas Education Code clearly states that “A school district employee or volunteer or an independent contractor of a district may not place a student in seclusion.” Defined by the state as “a behavior management technique in which a student is confined in a locked box, locked closet, or locked room” that is less than 50 square feet, the seclusion of children, especially disabled ones, is generally viewed by health experts as undesirable, to say the least. The smallest room at one elementary school is 56 square feet, which NBC calculated as being “a little smaller than the average parking space.” However, since the recovery rooms were not locked and were larger than the state’s minimum size requirements, Mansfield ISD seems to have closely skirted Texas laws on isolating children.
This rule doesn’t apply to seclusion used as part of court-ordered placements or treatment facilities, but it should apply to independent school districts, which fall under the TEA’s jurisdiction. State code allows schools to place children in “time-out” so students can “regain self-control.”
The isolation of schoolchildren is controversial not only in Texas but across the country. In June, NPR partnered with ProPublica to investigate the issue. Their analysis of the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data revealed an astounding 104,000 instances of seclusion nationwide during the 2011-2012 school year, which was the first time that reporting seclusion and restraint was mandatory for schools. In 75 percent of seclusion or restraint cases, the child had a disability.
The numbers have shocked some federal officials. Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary of education in the Office for Civil Rights, said: “Where we remove a kid from a classroom, where we seclude the child or where we restrain the child, the message that we send is that the child has low value, and so little value that we won’t even try to educate that student.”
It’s also an issue that the Government Accountability Office, an independent agency that audits and evaluates various sectors of the federal government, flagged as problematic years ago. In a 2009 report on seclusions and restraints in schools and treatment centers, GAO investigators determined these techniques are used more frequently on disabled children and in extreme cases can result in injury or death. They also found that in the cases they examined children were secluded or restrained “as disciplinary measures, even when their behavior did not appear to be physically aggressive.”
Additionally, even residential treatment facilities, which have the express purpose of treating extremely troubled youth, are shying away from these types of management techniques. The American Association of Child Residential Centers has specifically addressed the problematic nature of the seclusion and restraint of young children. In one report, the association noted that some residential centers are moving away from seclusion and restraint, which can create “coercive” environments and “perpetuate a cycle of retraumatization” for children.
It’s important to note that restraint or seclusion may be necessary in some situations where a child is completely out of control and is in danger of doing harm to themselves or others. However, schools should refrain from relying too heavily on these techniques, which experts say should be reserved for extreme cases and circumstances.
Calming down an out-of-control child is one thing, but sticking them in a windowless room by themselves for misbehaving in class seems inhumane, counterproductive and ultimately damaging to the child. Rather than defaulting to seclusion, school officials need to carefully consider other options and ensure that it really is a necessary measure for protecting the child and others.