Michael D. Clark reports:
Little-known “seclusion rooms” in Ohio schools are a vital tool for helping special needs students, say parents and educators at local districts that use the rooms, including Lakota, Mason and Fairfield.
Some advocates for special needs youth argue that the practice can be traumatic and potentially harmful to students and school staffers.
In Ohio, seclusion is banned in some mental health institutions. Rules also put strict limits on the use of seclusion in children’s residential facilities. But in public schools, seclusion is not only acceptable, it’s unregulated.
“The use of the break room has never been anything other than helpful,” said Amy Schinner, mother of Ben, who will be a freshman at Lakota West Freshman School.
A report released by a group of Ohio National Public Radio stations and the Columbus Dispatch showed that 39 of 100 public and private charter schools surveyed in Ohio – including several in Greater Cincinnati – use seclusion rooms.
Special needs students, especially those with emotional disabilities that can cause them to be disruptive or physically harmful to themselves or others, are periodically placed in monitored, small rooms. The idea is that the reduced sensory stimuli of the rooms help calm students and refocus them toward learning.
Small sampling reveals some allegations of misuse
But the statewide sampling of a fraction of Ohio’s 613 public school districts and hundreds of charter schools revealed some allegations of misuse of the rooms that included unsupervised isolation of students in almost cell-like spaces.
“Would I like to send my 6-year-old to school and find out they’ve been locked in a dark room by themselves for five hours?’’ asked Barb Trader, the executive director of TASH told the Columbus Dispatch. “Would we find that acceptable? Absolutely not. There would be national outrage if this was happening to kids without disabilities.”
TASH is a Washington, D.C.-based group that pushes to end seclusion.
Ohio’s lack of a statewide policy regarding such rooms – also known as “sensory rooms,” “break rooms” and “time-out rooms” – has come to the forefront.
That is just one concern that Xavier University associate professor Thomas Knestrict has about seclusion rooms.
“(Schools) really don’t need a quiet room if your staff has the proper training and there is a policy developed,” said Knestrict, who specializes in early childhood education.
“Unless you have a highly trained staff and a specifically designed room, you really put yourself at risk to hurt the student or the staff or both.”
Kentucky schools also have the option of using “seclusion rooms,” says Lisa Gross, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education. The Kentucky State Board of Education is scheduled to decide today on adopting a statewide standard for the rooms.
In Southwest Ohio, several districts surveyed, including Lakota, Fairfield and Middletown in Butler County and Mason in Warren County, offer such spaces for special needs students. Cincinnati Public Schools – Southwest Ohio’s largest school system – does not use such rooms.
For Schinner, there is no controversy over the rooms and their benefits. Her son has used a “separation room” periodically as needed since the second grade.
“We call it his break room,” Schinner said.
“The first priority of the room is to provide him privacy; having a meltdown in front of peers or in a hallway is not helpful to him or his class. Secondly, the break room has been an integral tool in helping him learn to separate himself from stressful situations and become in control of his behavior.”
Room helped autistic child ‘dial down’ to calmer state
Former Lakota school board member Jamie Green, whose now grown child was challenged by autism while attending Lakota, also supports the district’s use of them.
“I had never heard of seclusion rooms, but I’m all for sensory rooms,” Green said.
The reduced sensory stimuli of such rooms helped her child return the “dial down” to a calmer state, she said.
Lakota has two “sensory rooms” for use by small enrollment-sized, special-needs classes in Endeavor and Hopewell elementaries.
Lakota only places students in seclusion rooms if allowed under a student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which must be approved by parents.
Brenda Paget, executive director of special services for Lakota, said she was surprised by some incidents cited in the Dispatch report of students locked in bare rooms for hours with only a plastic chair. “You don’t throw a kid into a room with an X on the floor. That’s stupid,” Paget said.
She said Lakota’s rooms are quiet and comfortable with proper ventilation, indirect lighting and bean bag chairs and adult monitoring, all designed to lessen the sensory overload special needs children can experience from a regular classroom setting.
“And we don’t take it lightly when we choose to restrict their environment,” Paget said, referring to the documentation and parental notification process used by the district.
Debe Terhar, of Green Township, president of the Ohio School Board, said state education officials are aware of the need for uniform policies governing the use of such rooms.
“The state board is actively working with the Ohio Department of Education on the rules for the policy because it’s essential we are all on the same policy,” said Terhar, who said a policy is expected to be in place by spring 2013.
The Columbus Dispatch contributed.
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