Schools, Please Stop Locking Kids in Closets

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A goal for the new school year: Eliminate Restraint and Seclusion

Veteran parents know that the best way to manage their children’s tantrums and emotional outbursts is to try to prevent them in the first place. Understanding what is likely to trigger a meltdown and watching for the signs of distress in children prone to this behavior can help to avoid the behavior much of the time.

Unfortunately, school personnel may miss a child’s pending outburst because they haven’t been looking, don’t know what is likely to upset a student, or wait too long to intervene. Once the student is out of control, the go to options in many cases are placing the child in an isolation room or restraining the child.

At the end of last school year, I shared the story of a first grader in my community who was locked in a bare, cinder block closet, supposedly to give her the opportunity to calm down and behave appropriately. She was a member of a special education classroom, but apparently something happened when she was mainstreamed for gym class.

Picturing this little girl, who weighed around 50 pounds and was a bit over three feet tall, crying hysterically for 45 minutes in what was euphemistically called the “Calm Down Room” was heart breaking. The closet had a panel window that permitted an adult to look in, but the window was blocked by taped-on paper from the floor to four feet from the ground and also at the top, so the child could not look out. This also made the closet rather dark. The child was repeatedly slapping the window with her hands but was not tall enough to see anything.

<p>Inside, a bare and dark cinder block closet</p>

Inside, a bare and dark cinder block closet

Sadly, this kind of incident happens every day in our schools. Public schools have to deal with whatever children come to them, including children with very challenging behaviors. But continuing with practices like the one in my community in which a small girl was locked in a closet, crying herself into exhaustion for 45 minutes, does not help the child to learn or the staff to cope. And many children have been injured in calm down rooms or by school staff trying to restrain them.

During the 2014-15 school year, 70,000 special education students were secluded or restrained. That’s one out of every 100 children receiving special education services. According to Wrightslaw, educational staff members often interpret a child who has limited speech attempting to communicate how she feels as “bad behavior.” The child becomes frustrated and the behavior escalates, often to the point where the child is totally out of control.

“Imagine that you cannot express your thoughts in a way that others can easily understand. Now, imagine that you are a child who cannot communicate your fears, likes, dislikes, or pain. Imagine being misunderstood constantly. Imagine having others schedule every moment of your life without knowing what you would like to do. This is reality for some children. Is it any wonder that these children get frustrated?”

Seclusion and restraint hurt children physically as well as psychologically. Carson Luke, who has autism, was ten the day he was badly injured at his Virginia school. Because Carson became upset, threw his shoe, and escalated his behavior to attack a teacher, five adults dragged him to a seclusion room and slammed the metal door on his hand. His mother arrived to find her child with a broken bone protruding from his hand. In 2015, Virginia passed a bill requiring state limits on how public schools can restrain or isolate students. Many states, however, have no regulations in place.

In Wheaton, Minnesota in 2012, an 8-year-old boy with autism was handcuffed to a chair, his arms and legs bound, with a piece of cloth tied over his face. His offense was likely that he hated to stop an activity he was enjoying to move on to the next scheduled activity. Forcing him to stop would generally lead to a meltdown. As the child explained two year later, "I had a meltdown and stuff, and I didn't want to go to timeout and I made a bad decision. ... I had a tantrum."

In a 2014 study by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on the dangerous use of seclusion and restraints in schools, horror stories abounded. In Iowa an 8-year-old girl with autism and other disabilities was placed in a converted storage area under a staircase 100 times over a four month period to calm her aggression. In a Louisiana charter school, a 7-year-old buy with PTSD and ADHD was locked in the principal’s closet and then taken away in handcuffs by police who used excessive force. In Minnesota, an 8-year-old girl with communication, attention, and hyperactivity issues was secluded 44 times against the objections of an independent behavioral consultant and the child’s mother. In North Carolina, a 5-year-old girl was strapped to a chair repeatedly, even when she was not being aggressive. In all of these and many more examples, the children were unable to report how they were being treated at school. In many cases, parents were not notified. Reading this document will make you weep.

Sadly, seclusion and restraint are common practices. But recent court challenges have succeeded in eliminating the use of seclusion rooms in some communities. Around the same time I wrote about the little girl in the closet, the Iowa Department of Education ruled that Iowa City schools employing this practice were in violation of state and federal law. In just one year, the Iowa City school system reported there had been 455 incidents of seclusion involving 64 children, most of them in pre-kindergarten through grade three. Since 18 of the children were placed in a seclusion room six or more times, clearly, they were not learning anything from the experience. The practice was more like incarcerating inmates with no plan for rehabilitation than it was an educational intervention.

A Different Way Going Forward

As a new school year begins, it’s time for educators to seek a better way to manage children whose behavior is out of control. According to Bonnie Zampino from Ukeru Systems, a division of Grafton Integrated Health Network of Virginia, there is. Ukeru is based on Trauma Informed Care and teaches about understanding that behavior is communication. The key is to figure out what the child is trying to express. Viewing behavior through this different lens allows schools to eliminate punishment, seclusion and ultimately restraints while reducing the physical risk to students and school employees and legal risk to the school district. For it to work, schools need to change their culture and give staff the tools to treat students with comfort rather than control.

In most schools, teachers don’t have enough in-class resources, support, or training. They may be dealing with the effect of trauma on a child’s brain or a variety of special needs, and have no idea how to address these things. Restraint and seclusion are used because they are familiar responses, and are used most often with the youngest children because staff members are physically able to do so.

Locking a child in a seclusion room like the “Calm Down Room” used in my community school does more to help the adults who fear someone will get hurt or who are angry and frustrated and locked into a power struggle with a child. For the child, it is a traumatic experience that can have the opposite effect of what was intended. Some students learn to repeat the behavior so they can isolate themselves and avoid a task or not follow the rules expected of them. Others are so traumatized, dehumanized, agitated, or depressed by the experience that their behavior becomes even worse.

What else can educators do? For aggressive behavior, Zampino recommends staff learn to use blocking, a technique that employs safe objects in the environment (bean bags, pillows, etc.) to block the child’s aggression before it hurts the child or others, thus enabling staff members to talk to the child and de-escalate the situation without fear of getting hurt. There is also special equipment designed for this purpose. If a child attacks another child, educators can have the victim do what is called a safe turn, turning away from the aggressor. Then the educator can use blocking to keep the aggressive child from hurting anyone, including herself. Staff can also learn releases, which are ways to have a child let go before harming anyone.

The best technique, however, is to anticipate behaviors and redirect or remove children from a situation before things go south. Sometimes, a walk to get a drink of water or some quiet time in a cozy corner looking at a book can de-escalate a situation. Being pro-active rather than reactive eliminates the need for seclusion rooms.

After an incident, using a team approach to examine what happened and how a repeat of the incident can be avoided works best. Communication is key. Educators need to debrief by discussing what happened, what they learned that could be useful to help the child in the future, and what might have been missed that led to the escalation of the student’s distress and acting out.

All of this takes time. Staff, including general and special educators and classroom aides, need to be trained to observe and understand their students and anticipate behaviors. Training staff and hiring more aides will save money in the end, as lawsuits from families, injuries, staff workers compensation claims, and hiring substitutes for injured staff cost districts money.

I write this to give a voice to all of the children who have been locked in closets like the little girl in my community or restrained by adults twice their size. There are ways to avoid escalating a child’s behavior before the total meltdown happens. And there are better ways to deal with children whose behavior is out of control. It’s time to stop locking kids in closets at school.

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