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Seclusion Is No Way to Discipline Kids

Tingley-021 colorI had another topic in mind for today’s blog, and then I read Bill Lichtenstein’s opinion piece in the Sunday NY Times.   “A Terrifying Way to Discipline Children” describes his daughter’s experience of being placed in a “seclusion” or “time out” room when she was in kindergarten in Lexington, Massachusetts six years ago.

You cannot read this story without anguish and anger.  Lichtenstein’s child had been place in a locked broom closet almost daily for three months for up to an hour at a time for offenses that ranged from behavioral issues to not following directions.  The parents were not notified until the final isolation when they were called to come and pick up the little girl.  It was then that they learned that the child had been locked in the close five times that morning alone.  The aftermath included long-term therapy for the child and litigation against the school district.

Lichtenstein cites Department of Education data indicating that nearly 40,000 students were placed in restraining or isolation rooms during the 2009-10 school year.  He adds that the majority of children place in these rooms had learning, behavioral, or developmental needs and that a disproportionate number were African-American or Hispanic students.  However, as I review the DOE survey of states’ guidelines regarding seclusion rooms, it appears to me that the number is probably significantly higher since some states had no guidelines in 2011.  There  are no federal guidelines either, although Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote regarding the survey that there was “no evidence that using restraint or seclusion is effective.”

New York is one state with fairly specific regulations for the use of such rooms.  Seclusion rooms are to be used only for emergency situations and not as punishment.  Except in emergency situations, use of rooms such as these must be part of the child’s behavioral plan agreed to by the student’s parents.  The room must meet specified standards for size, time is limited, and the child must be supervised at all times.  And even then some schools have been charged with violations of the regs.

I never worked in a school district with a time out room, but I remember a tour through a neighboring high school that contained one.  The district employed an aide to supervise the children sent to the room.  New York State requires that the aide be trained, but I remained unconvinced that despite the state regulations, that this was a procedure that was good for children.  Despite the regs, there is too much opportunity for abuse.

When I think about Lichtenstein’s five-year-old daughter, I have to ask, didn’t anyone intervene?  Didn’t anyone say, hey, this is just a little kid.  We shouldn’t be doing this.  Let’s call the parents.  There must be something else we can do.  This is breaking my heart.   And where was the principal?  You have to wonder about a school culture in which putting a five-year-old girl into a locked broom closet repeatedly is acceptable adult behavior. These folks shouldn’t be allowed to work with any kids.  It’s criminal.


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.