I was 13 years old when I started being kept in the basement.
I had been sent to live with a high control group, the politically correct term for a cult.
On my third day there, immediately after finishing breakfast, the woman who was in charge of the household I was placed in took me down the wooden stairs to the basement. She told me to stay, went back up those stairs, and closed the door behind her. This was how I was to begin all of my days that first summer.
The basement, to my young eyes, was large and scary. It was dingy and gray, the walls made of cinder block and the floor of concrete. The clothes hanging in the deep recesses of the room looked like ghosts in the dim shadows cast by the single bulb hanging naked from the ceiling. There were no windows, the door was locked, and I was alone in that dark, dank place every day for hours until they would let me out to attend noon prayers. It was terrifying.
My parents had no idea that this was happening and I had no way of telling them. There was no one who could help me. I didn't scream to be let out. I didn't bang on the door. There was no point. There was no hope
It wasn't until recently that I understood that this is known as seclusion and this happens hundreds of times every day to children in schools across the United States. In fact, in the 2012 school year, schools that collect data showed that students were secluded 104,000 times.
Seclusion rooms are called many things; quiet rooms, scream rooms, time-out rooms, naughty rooms. Some are padded. Some are simple cinder block. Some have locked doors. Some of those doors have windows in them. Many do not. Most are the size of a closet.
Seclusion is a method used to control children who are exhibiting challenging behaviors. However, it has not shown to produce positive results. Instead, research shows that it is similar to torture and damages children's development.
I wasn't in the basement because of anything I did. Where I lived, the belief was that we were sinners and should be punished. Although the spiritual component is different in school, the underlying problem is the same. Children are removed from their peers, humiliated and subjected to terror, often for simple childlike behaviors such as not paying attention or refusing to do work. And they sit on the cold concrete floor, alone, scared, unable to see out and not knowing how long they will be locked in that room. They cry, scream, bang their little fists on the door, begging to be let out. Some of those children leave those rooms with broken bones. Some, like a 13 year-old boy in Georgia, never leave the room at all; he hung himself there.
While this is of special concern for parents of special needs children like myself, this practice is not restricted only to children who are disabled. Only 12 states have laws that limit seclusion to emergency situations for all children. Eighteen states limit it for children with disabilities but not for all children. Sadly, 28 states not only allow seclusion of children with or without disabilities, but don't even require staff to watch the child to make sure they aren't hurt or killed.
If you are the parent of school-aged children, this should concern you...greatly. What can you do about it?
1. Take a moment to read about the laws in your state. Whether or not your child has a disability, they could be placed in seclusion.
2. Take a moment to believe that there could be another way. Because there is.
There is a private, nonprofit behavioral health organization in Virginia that operates several schools, some for children with autism and other developmental disabilities, some for children with psychiatric diagnosis. All of the children they serve are those who could not be served by their community or their school, even with the use of aversive practices like seclusion, because of their extremely challenging behaviors,. And yet, this organization has eliminated the use of seclusion across their entire scope of services.
How? Because they believe that behavior is communication and that their job as teachers and providers is to be able to understand what the individual is trying to communicate and to create an environment that believes that aversive practices cause trauma to individuals who, in many cases, come to them with a significant trauma histories. They believe their job is to heal. They believe that every individual has the desire to do well. Grafton Integrated Health Network uses a system they developed called Ukeru to create trauma-informed environments and eliminate seclusion.
3. Call your school district and ask them which crisis management tool they use. And then ask them to consider other options and training to assist them in eliminating seclusion in your child's school.
When I was 13 years old, in that basement, I found an old record player. It was the kind that looked like a box with a latch and when you lifted the lid, the player was inside. On it I would play the soundtrack to the musical My Fair Lady. And in the dark and lonely void, I would sing with a tiny glimmer of hope:
"All I want is...
Someone's head resting on my knee.
Warm and tender as he can be.
Who takes good care of me.
Oh, wouldn't it be loverly."
- Wouldn't It Be Loverly
You can be the one to help bring about these changes for your child and other children who need your help. You can be the one who takes good care of our children. Together we can make sure no child is locked away at school again. Oh, wouldn't it be loverly?