Senator, advocates push for policy on seclusion rooms in schools
Seclusion at school is a hot topic and one educators don't like to talk about.
13 Investigates shows you why advocates for special needs children are pushing for a consistent statewide policy, putting limits on excessive isolation practices.
They're called by a number of names: "isolation rooms," "quiet rooms," or "safe rooms."
No matter the terminology, random school districts here in Indiana and across the country use them to calm special needs children who become combative and violent in the classroom.
"Some are very, very small, like a closet, some have locks and some don't. Some have cameras in them, some don't," rattled off Dana Renay, Executive Director of the Autism Society of Indiana.
But like the use of physical restraints, there's no legal requirement to tell parents when their child is put in seclusion or for how long. Worse yet, parents say the rooms are being misused as punishment chambers with their children locked inside and left unattended.
An Indianapolis mother made a police report just months ago, saying her son was confined to a closet in a Pike Township school and couldn't get out. Eyewitness News asked to see the room, but Pike Township school officials wouldn't even return our calls.
One "isolation room" made national news and was shut down within weeks after parents in Washington state discovered there was no real way to supervise a child locked inside.
"A child should never be out of sight of the teacher or a school employee because bad things can happen when that occurs," said Indiana State Senator Randy Head.
Head and advocates for children with disabilities say the "safe room" concept isn't bad when used appropriately. But they say it should be against the law to lock children in, unsupervised.
"When a student is put in that room, it shouldn't be out of merely because it's convenient for someone else," said Head, who is sponsoring Senate Bill 345 to address restraint and seclusion in school.
13 Investigates sent surveys to more than 40 school districts in Indianapolis and surrounding counties to see which ones used "safe or quiet rooms."
Of the third that responded, only three districts reported having one: Zionsville, Hamilton Heights, and Mt. Vernon.
Yet a statewide survey by the U.S. Department of Education in 2010 found more than 3,000 Indiana students in special education classes were put in seclusion that year.
"I do think it's more prevalent than we ever thought it was," said Kim Dodson, the Associate Executive Director at the Arc of Indiana, that advocates for individuals with disabilities.
While some school districts won't talk about it, 13 Investigates found an open door, in the sensory room at Mount Comfort Elementary in Hancock County.
In the special room, students with a history of classroom meltdowns get a "sensory diet" of activities known to de-escalate their behavior.
It starts from the moment a student steps into Room 420. The lights are dimmed, soothing music fills the background, and, depending on what the students has practiced and found helpful, a swing, trampoline, and other soothing sensory items offer them a chance to refocus.
"Sometimes they just need a little time away from that atmosphere to help them get calmed down so that they can self-regulate," said Dianne Grannan who oversees the program at Mt. Comfort.
Grannan has worked in special education for 25 years and has found more students needing scheduled "quiet times" throughout the day to keep from having violent episodes.
"This whole concept is to kind of stop a behavior or an outburst before it happens," explained Grannan.
But Mt. Comfort is also prepared for extreme cases. Students who have accelerated behavioral issues are taken to the "quiet room."
Inside, extra safety measures have been put in place to give the students a safe place to calm down. Teachers must monitor the child from both inside and outside of the room and the door is never locked.
Grannan says the haven was created with a $500 grant and some creative donations. The padding example came from an older gym.
But is all the sensory talk too much?
"There's always going to be some people who say, 'Oh they really don't need that!'," responded Grannan. "You kind of have to see it to understand it, but it really does work."
But before any room is set up, Senator Head says Indiana must adequately train its teachers statewide how to handle challenging students, making restraints and seclusion a last resort, not a tactic fueled by frustration..
Hearings for Senate Bill 345 are set for the week of February 11.
13 Investigates contacted dozens of school districts in central Indiana to ask about their restraint and seclusion policy. Below you will find links to some of their responses and policies.
See a Facebook page that collects resources for parents about sensory processing disorder resources.