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StateImpact Ohio: State Board of Education Weighing New Rules On Seclusion

Friday, January 11, 2013 at 12:28 PM

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The state Board of Education is set to l vote for the first time on whether Ohio schools should have to follow standard rules about the use of seclusion rooms. Ohio schools' use of seclusion and restraint of children with disabilities has come under scrutiny in the past year after a joint investigation by the Columbus Dispatch and StateImpact Ohio found teachers sometimes use the rooms to punish children. StateImpact Ohio's Molly Bloom reports the policy aims to balance the concerns of educators with the treatment of students with special needs.

The state Board of Education is set to l vote for the first time on whether Ohio schools should have to follow standard rules about the use of seclusion rooms. Ohio schools’ use of seclusion and restraint of children with disabilities has come under scrutiny in the past year after a joint investigation by the Columbus Dispatch and StateImpact Ohio found teachers sometimes use the rooms to punish children. StateImpact Ohio’s Molly Bloom reports the policy aims to balance the concerns of educators with the treatment of students with special needs.

Morgan Linnabary was eight years old when he was sent to a special school for children with behavior problems.

At the new school, when he mouthed off to teachers or got upset, he was sent to the isolation room: a plywood box inside a separate room down the hall. Morgan says it happened dozens of times.

“It’s like ‘No, no just give me some time to calm down.’ And [they’d be] like, ‘No you’re going to isolation.’ They would not listen to your pleas of I can calm down if you give me some time,” he said.

Officials at Morgan’s old school in Defiance County, Ohio didn’t return our calls seeking comment.

That’s not how seclusion rooms are supposed to be used. Experts say children are only supposed to be shut in the rooms if they’re a danger to themselves or others.

Morgan says being shut in a seclusion room might have taught him not to mouth off to teachers. But it didn’t help him learn how to read, write, or do math.

“If you got sent to isolation that halts the whole thing. Stops the whole process of the day,” he said.

The new proposed state policy explicitly says seclusion can only be used in emergencies. It requires school staff to get training in teaching positive behaviors.

But it has some loopholes.

The new policy would only apply to traditional public schools - not charter schools.

And it could prevent the public from knowing whether schools are using seclusion and restraint properly.

When a student is put in a seclusion room or is restrained by staff, schools would have to record it in that student’s file. But those records would be confidential. And the policy does not require schools to track how often they seclude or restrain students, or the reasons why.

Lee Smith is a principal at Louisville Elementary School in northeast Ohio. He’s one of the school administrators waiting to see the final result of state policy discussions.

Smith doesn’t use the term seclusion room.

His school has what he calls sensory rooms with padded walls, curtained windows, beanbag chairs on the floor and a sling that children can use as a hammock. The rooms do have doors and are used primarily for children with special needs.

Smith says the rooms are usually used as refuges for kids who are having meltdowns and need a private place to calm down.  But Smith doesn’t track how often the rooms are used, or how.

Still, Smith says his teachers know that simple misbehavior is not a reason to restrain or seclude a child.

“Period, end of discussion. We’re not even going down that path. If they’re shuffling their little feet down the hallway and they’re turning around screaming at you or whatever-I don’t care. Our staff understands that mentality,” he said.

Andrea Unklesbay, teaches kindergarteners and first graders with multiple disabilities at Louisville Elementary. Unklesbay says she has not seen its “sensory room” used to discipline students, but she favors uniform guidelines.

“Maybe it would be good for the whole state be on the same page about that. I think that if everyone had rules and guidelines and stuff like that across the state that would be really cool, I think,” she said.

If the state board approves the new policy, it would take effect starting next school year.

For StateImpact Ohio, I’m Molly Bloom. 

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Education, Government/Politics

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