Solitary confinement for children

Putting people in solitary confinement for extended periods is recognized to be a form of torture. So what does it say about us that in the state of Illinois, school districts have been using this form of punishment as disciplinary measures for decades, even with very young children, though giving them benign-sounding euphemisms. ProPublica investigated these practices and issued a damning report.

THE SPACES have gentle names: The reflection room. The cool-down room. The calming room. The quiet room.

But shut inside them, in public schools across the state, children as young as 5 wail for their parents, scream in anger and beg to be let out.

The students, most of them with disabilities, scratch the windows or tear at the padded walls. They throw their bodies against locked doors. They wet their pants. Some children spend hours inside these rooms, missing class time. Through it all, adults stay outside the door, writing down what happens.

In Illinois, it’s legal for school employees to seclude students in a separate space — to put them in “isolated timeout” — if the students pose a safety threat to themselves or others. Yet every school day, workers isolate children for reasons that violate the law, an investigation by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois has found.

Children were sent to isolation after refusing to do classwork, for swearing, for spilling milk, for throwing Legos. School employees use isolated timeout for convenience, out of frustration or as punishment, sometimes referring to it as “serving time.”

For this investigation, ProPublica Illinois and the Tribune obtained and analyzed thousands of detailed records that state law requires schools to create whenever they use seclusion. The resulting database documents more than 20,000 incidents from the 2017-18 school year and through early December 2018.

Of those, about 12,000 included enough detail to determine what prompted the timeout. In more than a third of these incidents, school workers documented no safety reason for the seclusion.

Some of the incidents reported in the article are truly horrifying.

The day after ProPublica’s explosive report came, out, the governor of Illinois issued a ban on the practice.

Two days after Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered Illinois schools to immediately stop secluding children alone in timeout rooms, educators and parents tried to grasp the implications of the new prohibition on a practice that had been embedded in schools for decades.

School districts sent letters to parents saying they would no longer put children in locked rooms, while the head of the Illinois State Board of Education apologized to families and said the law that had been in effect “did not sufficiently regulate” isolated timeout, causing “lasting trauma.”

Illinois officials issued emergency rules banning isolated timeouts and some types of physical restraint on Wednesday, the day after ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune published an investigation that revealed widespread misuse of seclusion rooms. State and federal lawmakers are vowing to seek a permanent ban next.

When I read articles like this, I always wonder what happens in other countries. Do they not have students who are difficult to deal with? That seems unlikely. So how do they deal with them? Do they resort in this way too? Or is the US an outlier in resorting to such extreme measures rather than more humane ones?


  1. file thirteen says

    It’s realistic schooling -- preparing the students for their life inside! (obligatory link to System of a Down’s Prison Song)

    We don’t allow that in New Zealand. You can follow the links if you want to read in detail the ministry of education’s guidelines on how to deal with disruptive students, but it really isn’t rocket science.

  2. jrkrideau says

    @ 1 Tabby Lavalamp

    We have those in Alberta too

    When I was working in an Ontario Correctional Centre it was called “the hole”.

    This sounds not far off what the UN terms torture.

  3. Jazzlet says

    I couldn’t say whether we have them in the UK, the removal of so many schools from Local Authority control (where it certainly wouldn’t happen) means there may well be schools that think it is an appropriate way to deal with children; given some of the other things some of these schools think is good practice it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they had exclusion rooms.

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