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.
State education officials are unaware of these repeated violations because they do not monitor schools’ use of the practice. Parents, meanwhile, often are told little about what happens to their children.
The Tribune/ProPublica Illinois investigation, which also included more than 120 interviews with parents, children and school officials, provides the first in-depth examination of this practice in Illinois.
Because school employees observing the students often keep a moment-by-moment log, the records examined by reporters offer a rare view of what happens to children inside these rooms — often in their own words.
Without doubt, many of the children being secluded are challenging. Records show school employees struggling to deal with disruptive, even violent behavior, such as hitting, kicking and biting. Workers say that they have to use seclusion to keep everyone in the classroom safe and that the practice can help children learn how to calm themselves.
But disability advocates, special-education experts and administrators in school systems that have banned seclusion argue that the practice has no therapeutic or educational value, that it can traumatize children — and that there are better alternatives.
No federal law regulates the use of seclusion, and Congress has debated off and on for years whether that should change. Last fall, a bill was introduced that would prohibit seclusion in public schools that receive federal funding. A U.S. House committee held a hearing on the issue in January, but there’s been no movement since.
Nineteen states prohibit secluding children in locked rooms; four of them ban any type of seclusion. But Illinois continues to rely on the practice. The last time the U.S. Department of Education calculated state-level seclusion totals, in 2013-14, Illinois ranked No. 1.
And again, Illinois has now banned the practice pending reform legislation. This story changed the law. It made a difference and the impact was real, a change measured in days, not years. This is what I mean when I say our media is a force for good and must be used as such.