Saying tens of millions of children are at risk, two U.S. senators and 10 members of the House of Representatives, all but one of them from Illinois, on Wednesday urged the nation’s top education official to tell schools to stop putting students in seclusion rooms.
They also asked Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to issue federal guidance to prohibit physical restraints that restrict breathing and instead promote “evidence-based alternatives” for dealing with challenging behavior that don’t involve hands-on contact.
“We are gravely concerned by harmful student seclusion and restraint practices occurring in schools around our country,” reads the letter, spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, a Democrat who represents the 6th Congressional District in Chicago’s west and northwest suburbs. “The use of seclusion and dangerous restraints is putting the psychological well-being and lives of children at risk every day and must be addressed at the federal level immediately.”
The letter cites a Chicago Tribune-ProPublica Illinois investigation, “The Quiet Rooms,” that found public schools put children in seclusion, known in Illinois as isolated timeout, every day for reasons that violated the law. Reporters also found that school employees were physically restraining children -- sometimes facedown on the floor -- when there was not an emergency safety risk, also a violation of state law. Most of the children who were secluded had intellectual or behavioral disabilities.
The day after the first story published in November, the Illinois State Board of Education banned locking students in isolation rooms, restricted the use of restraints and required public and private schools to alert the state when they use the interventions. Proposed rules that would take effect this spring would ban face-down restraints. State lawmakers have also introduced legislation to ban seclusion.
Four states -- Georgia, Hawaii, Nevada and Pennsylvania -- ban seclusion. Sixteen others, now including Illinois, ban seclusion in certain circumstances or for certain types of students. “There are tens of millions of American children still at risk of experiencing this detrimental practice,” according to the letter sent Wednesday.
The Tribune and ProPublica Illinois are seeking comment from the Education Department.
Casten said the misuse of the rooms is widespread throughout the country, and action is necessary to update 2016 federal guidelines on the issue. In the 2015-16 school year, the most recent year data was collected nationally, schools reported having used seclusion more than 73,000 times.
Casten acknowledged that school employees need training in alternatives to seclusion and restraint, but said in an interview Wednesday, “I have not heard from anyone that they would be very disappointed if we took away this frankly inhumane practice.
“This shouldn’t be controversial,” he added. “I have no doubt that with the Department of Education leading this and the Congress behind it, we can put an end to this practice.”
Seclusion rooms are typically small, sometimes padded, spaces meant to be used only in a safety emergency. Some have heavy doors that lock and most are bare inside. Once reserved for residential or psychiatric facilities, some public schools began using them decades ago as they began serving more students with disabilities. While families and disabilities advocates say they are inhumane and cause lasting trauma, some school officials say they need the option to educate students with significant behavioral challenges.
Congressional efforts to prohibit seclusion and limit physical restraint in public schools that receive federal funds have repeatedly stalled since 2009. But after “The Quiet Rooms” was published, U.S. Rep. Don Beyer, D-Virginia, said he plans to reintroduce the most recent bill to ban seclusion, the Keeping All Students Safe Act.
Casten said the ProPublica Illinois-Tribune investigation mobilized members of the Illinois delegation. He said they didn’t actively seek support from lawmakers from other states, but U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat, signed the letter.
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U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth said she signed the letter to DeVos with the hope that she would “immediately ban this disturbing practice.”
“As a mother to two young girls, it makes me physically ill to hear stories about children being locked up in isolation rooms as part of their school’s seclusion program,” Duckworth, a Democrat, wrote in a statement. “This is a horrifying practice that is dangerous and detrimental to the well-being of all young students, especially those with disabilities.”
U.S. Sen Dick Durbin wrote: “The practices of life-threatening student seclusion and restraint should be banned from our schools. We are calling on the Department of Education to respond.”
The Tribune-ProPublica Illinois investigation, based on records from more than 100 school districts, documented more than 35,000 times when students were put in seclusion or restrained. While state law allows seclusion and restraint only when there’s a safety issue, workers put children in isolation as punishment for spilling milk, not doing work or refusing to put toys away, the analysis found.
In one-third of the seclusion incidents, the law was violated, the investigation found; for restraint, the violation rate was one out of four.
The U.S. Education Department last issued guidance about seclusion and restraint in December 2016, focusing on concerns that the interventions could result in discrimination against students with disabilites. The federal government defines seclusion as involuntarily confining students alone in a room or area from which they can’t leave. That wouldn’t include times when a student chooses to leave class to calm down or go to a sensory room at school.
In January 2019, DeVos said the department would “address the inappropriate use of restraint and seclusion" by conducting compliance reviews of school districts and working to improve data reporting. Schools’ self-reported data on the use of seclusion and restraint is flawed, the ProPublica Illinois-Tribune investigation found.
An Education Department spokesman said this week that the department had not opened any compliance reviews involving restraint and seclusion at Illinois school districts in the past year.
Casten said he hopes there will be federal guidance soon and then, ultimately, a law that will “cement that in place.”
Miranda Johnson, a professor at Loyola University’s law school who studies school discipline reform, said research shows that practices that prevent students’ behavior from escalating are effective and keep students safe.
“What I haven’t seen in research is any evidence that seclusion and restraint do help to keep young people and adults safe at school. In fact, they come with great risks, including the risk of death,” she said.
“We need to go back and reflect on our assumptions on practices that are keeping students safe in schools.”
The other members of the Illinois delegation who signed the letter are: U.S. Reps. Cheri Bustos, Mike Quigley, Danny Davis, Brad Schneider, Jan Schakowsky, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Raja Krishnamoorthi and Bill Foster. All of them are Democrats.
This story is a collaboration between the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois.
Jennifer Smith Richards is a Chicago Tribune reporter. Jodi S. Cohen is a reporter for ProPublica Illinois.