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Illinois To Take Emergency Action To Halt Isolated Timeouts In Schools

NOT FOR FILE USE - A seclusion room at Braun Educational Center in south suburban Oak Forest, Illinois.
Zbigniew Bzdak | Chicago Tribune
A seclusion room at Braun Educational Center in south suburban Oak Forest, Illinois.

The Illinois State Board of Education announced on Wednesday that it will take emergency action to end isolated seclusion of children in schools, saying the practice has been “misused and overused to a shocking extent.”

Calling the seclusion of children in Illinois “appalling,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said that he directed the education agency to make the emergency rules, and that he will then work with legislators to make them law.

The rules would not totally ban the use of timeout rooms, but children would be put in timeout only if a “trained adult” is in the room and the door is unlocked. Timeouts also must be used only for therapeutic reasons or to protect the safety of students and staff, the board said.

The board also said it will begin collecting data on all instances of timeout and physical restraint in Illinois schools. State officials had not previously monitored these practices.

The response comes a day after the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois published an investigation, based on thousands of school records, that revealed children were put in isolation every school day for reasons that often violate the law.

“Isolated seclusion will end now,” Pritzker said in a written statement. “It traumatizes children, does lasting damage to the most vulnerable and violates the most deeply held values of my administration and the State of Illinois. The use of this unacceptable practice in districts around the state for several years is appalling, and I am demanding complete and immediate accountability.”

Earlier in the day, Pritzker told reporters the action couldn’t wait even “another 24 hours.” The rules will be filed on Wednesday, according to the statement.

At least one lawmaker also said he plans to introduce legislation by the end of the week that would ban isolated timeout in Illinois.

State schools superintendent Carmen Ayala called the investigation’s findings “appalling, inexcusable and deeply saddening.”

“ISBE condemns the unlawful use of isolated seclusion, and we will take immediate steps to ensure the traumatic treatment described in the investigation never happens to another Illinois student,” Ayala said in a statement.

Under current Illinois law, 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.

For the investigation published Tuesday, ProPublica Illinois and the Tribune obtained records documenting more than 20,000 incidents of seclusion 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, and in more than a third of those cases, school employees documented no safety reason for the seclusion.

The records also document the distress of students who were put in seclusion rooms alone, sometimes for hours. Aides logged the children crying, screaming, begging to be set free, ramming their heads into the walls and prying at the doors.

State Rep. Jonathan Carroll, D-Northbrook, said he expects to file legislation that would ban the use of isolated timeout in schools altogether. A former special education teacher, Carroll wrote an impassioned blog post about his own experience as a child in seclusion rooms at school, saying that at 45 he still has “nightmares because of this treatment.”

“Isolation was my personal Hell,” he wrote. “I begged my parents to take me out of that school and when they did, it changed my life.”

“It is a battle I must and will fight,” Carroll said. “To the 12-year-old boy who’s still inside of me dealing with this pain, I will do everything in my power to not have others feel the same way.”

Nineteen states prohibit some form of seclusion at school; four ban it outright. Illinois’ law, enacted in 1999, states that schools can seclude children for safety reasons only.

The law was prompted by public outrage over the use of a 3-foot-square plywood box in Pontiac classrooms to isolate children with disabilities in 1989. Illinois temporarily banned the practice as the state studied it and then enacted guidelines.

Pritzker, who was speaking at an unrelated event, said he’s seeking a long-term solution that addresses the root of the issue.

“We’re going to do that work, but we need to just take a minute here to make sure that we’re doing it the right way,” he said.

According to the emergency rules ISBE plans to submit on Wednesday, all public and private schools will be required to submit data to the board within 48 hours of any instance of timeout or restraint. Further, all school districts will be required to submit data to ISBE on instances of timeout and restraint during the current school year and the prior two.

The Illinois Education Association, a teachers union that represents more than 135,000 members, issued a statement supporting the emergency actions.

“Safety is priority number one with our students, especially those who have traumatic pasts and who have special needs,” IEA President Kathi Griffin said in a statement. “Seclusion takes safety out of the mix and adds fear and torment. Calm rooms, or reflection rooms, should provide caring adults, helping to support students and to teach them strategies for self-regulation.”

This story is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune.
ProPublica Illinois is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force. Sign up for The ProPublica Illinois newsletter for weekly updates.

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