Locked Away: The Misuse Of Seclusion Rooms In Ohio Schools

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Brendon Spencer says he was secluded several times at his elementary school south of Cleveland. He's since transferred out of the district.(Photo: Ida Lieszkovszky, StateImpact Ohio)
Brendon Spencer says he was secluded several times at his elementary school south of Cleveland. He's since transferred out of the district.(Photo: Ida Lieszkovszky, StateImpact Ohio)

They’re known as seclusion rooms, scream rooms, therapy rooms, or time-out rooms. They’re old offices, closets, even specially designed small rooms with padded walls in Ohio schools. Whatever they’re called, and whatever they look like, they serve the same purpose: to lock away students for behaviors ranging from throwing an eraser to assault.

But StateImpact Ohio, along with The Columbus Dispatch, has learned seclusion rooms are often misused.

Brendon Spencer was secluded several times a year at Crestwood Elementary in Mantua, a small town about an hour southeast of Cleveland.

Spencer has ADHD, Asperger’s, anxiety and mood disorders. His classmates would bully him, and that would send him in a rage, kicking and hitting things around him. First he’d be told to stand in the hallway. If he didn’t calm down, he’d be sent into an old office.

“We had a room that used to, we used to go in and it was dark and it was like a closet, a big closet. There was a window in there but they’d shut the lights off and they’d put a teacher in there and make you have your head down.

It just made me feel like I was alone in darkness forever.”

Spencer says he was not allowed to leave the room and sometimes he’d be left in there alone.

By definition, special education experts define that as a seclusion room.

The school regrets that Spencer felt secluded, but it still denies having a seclusion room.

Brooke Pellets is director of pupil services at Crestwood Elementary.

“I guess if it was just a room that was used strictly for seclusion for students then there would have to be some kind of monitoring going on there, but if it’s just a place that we use for students to calm down or for students to have a place to sit while they’re waiting to see the principal, then that’s different,” Pellets says.

The look of seclusion rooms varies. Carrie Cook-Porter, the pupil services director at Logan Hocking Local Schools, describes seclusion rooms while standing in the middle of one.

“What do you think this is? Like 10′ by 12′ maybe? 10′ x 12′ classroom with maybe one third of it has a pad on the floor, and maybe one third of it has a pad on the wall.”

Roger Nott, the district’s intervention specialist, says such rooms are a necessity. He uses it a couple times a week for anywhere from a few minutes to an hour.

“I would say that the time-out room for those extreme situations is a must-have,” Nott says.

“It’s my last resort, I don’t want to go in there because in society there is no time out room so you want them to be able to accept defeat sometimes and compromise and stuff. But I think it’s necessary in order to keep them safe, and keep everybody else going, and sometimes you just need a break.”

But Sue Tobin, a lawyer with the Ohio Legal Rights Service says seclusion rooms are often misused.

“It’s not effective, it’s not research-based, it’s not peer-reviewed; it’s hurting kids and it’s hurting people.”

Among her clients is a family who sued Columbus City Schools this past spring for allegedly locking their autistic son in a seclusion room and leaving him lay in his own urine for hours.

“When parents send kids to school they expect them to be safe, and it should be shocking that kids aren’t safe.”

Ohio has no laws or rules or even guidelines about the use of seclusion rooms.

“We need rules and we need them sooner rather than later,” Tobin says.

No one even collects statewide data on their use.

But a joint investigation by StateImpact Ohio and the Columbus Dispatch found that nearly 40 percent of the 100 districts surveyed have rooms used to isolate children, and there’s no guarantee those children are safe.

Gary Tonks is the director of the ARC of Ohio, a group that advocates on behalf of people with disabilities. He says schools often use these rooms as a disciplinary tool, instead of as a way to remove kids when they become dangerous.

“Supposedly you’re taking them away from reinforcement, but we’ve seen that it’s not being used in that manner, it’s more punishment. You do bad? You go in that locked room over there.”

Take, for example, Youngstown City Schools, where pubic records show in one school students were secluded 42 times in a month. Only four of those incidences were the result of violent behavior.

The Ohio Department of Education is working on writing a policy on seclusion and restraint. It won’t ban either, says Sasheen Phillips, who heads the department’s special education efforts.

“Because restraint and seclusion is to be considered as a last resort we’re really more supporting positive behavior supports, so this is a last resort measure to ensure the safety and health and well being of parties involved.”

But that policy won’t be finalized until March of next year, and many advocates worry it’ll leave too much up to local control.

As for Brendon Spencer, he moved out of the district a few years ago, but not everybody has that option.

To find out where Brendon Spencer ended up, tune in for part two of the series on seclusion rooms. You can hear it Tuesday morning at 6:33 and 8:33 on 89.7, NPR News.

This report is a collaboration between The Columbus Dispatch and StateImpact Ohio, a project of NPR and Ohio public radio stations examining the effects of public policy on people’s lives. See more at Dispatch.com and at StateImpact Ohio.

  • Xflowers

    I don’t know what I think about this. When I was in school disruptive students would be sent to the principal’s office or they would have to sit by themselves in the hall. This was considered a punishment, by the way, and we all knew it. But some of these students I’ve read about here and in The Dispatch seem to have problems that neither the principle’s office nor the hall could address. I don’t know how one teacher with a classroom of students could possibly deal with a habitual severely disruptive student at the same time he or she is supposed to teach the rest of the class. It looks to me like the fault does not rest with the teachers or perhaps even the individual schools, but with the larger issue of statewide programs that address the needs of students with problems so severe they are unable to operate in the standard classroom situation. I don’t know what that program would be since I’ve never encountered such students while teaching on the college level. I can say, however, that when my daughter was little she would occasionally throw huge temper tantrums in which she would grow hysterical beyond reason because she wasn’t getting her way about one thing or another. Rarely during these episodes did reasoned argument solve the problem. On some occasions, I would resort to putting her in her room, alone, until she calmed down. I remember having to tie the door shut from the outside as she beat on it from the inside with a hanger. I will add that as she grew older this behavior disappeared and she is now a very fine lawyer.

  • Anonymous

    When I was a kid the behaviors being referenced in this story were called temper tantrums. Now, apparently, they are categorized as an emotional disorder and considered the teachers’ and schools’ responsibilities to deal with. (I called in to the show today and was quickly dismissed and told that the issue is that these kids haven’t learned to effectively communicate what they are feeling and experiencing. Seriously?)

    It seems that kids today are given an award for simply getting up in the morning and then praised and told they are divinely special because they chew their own food. No wonder they have ‘emotional disorders’ that look like temper tantrums. Are parents responsible for controlling their kids at all any more?