Locked In A Closet: School Discipline For A Child With Special Needs

She’s only in first grade, weighs around 50 pounds and is a bit over three feet tall. And she was locked in a closet at school, crying hysterically for 45 minutes, supposedly because her behavior posed a threat to herself or others and could not be managed by her teacher, the school social worker, or any other available adult. A parent visiting his child’s school witnessed the incident and took this photo:

The closet, euphemistically called the “Calm Down Room,” has a panel window that permits an adult to look in, but the window is blocked by taped-on paper from the floor to four feet from the ground and also at the top, so the child cannot look out. This also makes the closet rather dark. The light switch, which is on the outside of the closet, was off. The child was repeatedly slapping the window with her hands but was not tall enough to see anything.

The next time the parent was at school, he took this picture of the inside of the “Calm Down Room.”

The room is empty with bare white cinderblock walls and white linoleum floors. It looks like a solitary confinement cell in prison.

Haunted by what he had witnessed, he asked me as a former educator and early childhood administrator what I thought. He wondered if there was any justification for locking this young child in a closet for 45 minutes.

The girl is a student in a self-contained special education class, and special education teachers, the school social worker, and the principal came to the area outside of the “Calm Down Room.” Five educators kept telling the child she needed to calm down while she continued to scream, hit the window, and kick the walls. Eventually, a substitute teacher, who also kept asking her to calm down, replaced them.

Was there any justification for how this incident was handled? That’s a no-brainer. I was appalled on so many levels and urged the parent to report what he had seen to the administration. And I promised I would write about it, giving this child, and all children who are treated in this manner, a voice.

According to a lengthy study of restraint and seclusion laws, what he witnessed should not have happened. And yet, children have died or been seriously injured in seclusion rooms like this one. Add to that the trauma of being locked in a bare closet alone for 45 minutes when you are 6 or 7 years old. No, this should not happen.

Many states have no rules regarding using seclusion or restraint to discipline kids or allow them to regain control of themselves when they have a meltdown. Our state does have regulations in place, and I suspect some of them were violated here. Was isolation in a closet the last resort for this little girl? What had been tried before she went to her cell?

At the preschool I directed, which included ten percent of children with special needs in its population, kids sometimes lost it. The first response of the teachers and aides was to bring the child to a quiet area of the room. Usually, this would be a cozy area with books and soft toys. An adult would sit near the child and offer to read a story, hold the child on her lap and hug him, or sit near him while speaking gently. If this failed, a teacher or aide often took the child for a walk to get a drink of water. Every effort would be made to de-escalate the problem and return the child to classroom activities.

I have no idea what the staff tried with the little girl who ended up in the closet, but I do have these questions:

  • The time out or calm down room is supposed to be big enough to accommodate the child and “any other individual who is required to accompany that student.” To me, this means there is an assumption that an adult will sit in the room with the child. That would have been less frightening for a first grader.
  • The adult responsible for the child must be able to see her at all times. The way the window was covered makes it unlikely that happened for all 45 minutes the little girl was alone in that room.
  • Staff dealing with isolation and restraint must be certified in Crisis Intervention Training (CPI), a program that teaches educators how to defuse and de-escalate situations before isolation or restraint is needed. I doubt the substitute teacher was certified.
  • Parents of children in special education need to know about and agree to the use of isolation or restraint if there is no other way to manage their child’s behavior. They also must be informed every time these behavior management techniques are used. No way to know if this happened here, but the child is very young and may not have been able to tell anyone what had happened.

The picture of the bare inside of the “Calm Down Room” closet was horrifying. No rug or soft toys or books. No padding anywhere if the child in the throes of a meltdown hit her head on the wall or floor. No calming pictures or music. If you put me in a room like that for 45 minutes when I was upset, I doubt it would have helped me to feel better.

When I tell people that I had a teacher in third grade that paddled kids who misbehaved, they chalk it up to old-fashioned discipline that was common in schools in the fifties. And yet, this teacher, who routinely paddled a boy named Johnny every day at the start of school so he would remember to behave, traumatized me. All that year, I said nothing. Never raised my hand. I just focused on not doing anything to attract her attention to avoid being paddled.

How is locking a first grader in a closet, crying and screaming for 45 minutes, better than what my third grade teacher did? The child had to be traumatized by this experience. I’m writing this for a very young girl, because she deserves to have a voice.

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