This story is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune.
After months of debate about schools’ use of seclusion and face-down restraints on children, Illinois lawmakers did not act last week on a measure that would have banned the controversial practices immediately, instead delaying the decision until the fall at the earliest.
Although Gov. J.B. Pritzker and state schools Superintendent Carmen Ayala have vowed to stop the practices of putting children alone in locked rooms and holding them down on the floor, the bill faced opposition from school groups that viewed oversight requirements as too burdensome.
Months of meetings among lawmakers, school lobbyists and advocates ended with broad agreement that schools should reduce their reliance on the physical interventions, used most often on students with disabilities, according to meeting participants. But a last-minute push from the school groups tabled the matter this session; they thought the bill asked too much of school workers, who would be required to hold debriefing meetings with parents or guardians every time a student is put in time out or is restrained.
A Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois investigation last year, “The Quiet Rooms,” revealed widespread misuse of both practices in the state’s public schools.
New state rules adopted in April already significantly limit those practices and require state oversight for the first time, but advocates and lawmakers continued to push for a state law that would have superseded the rules and increased restrictions and oversight.
The most recent draft of the legislation would have made it illegal to put students alone in a locked room or in a room with the door blocked, and would have required that students placed in seclusion have access to food, medication and the bathroom. The bill also would have required school workers to meet with students and parents within two school days of each instance of time out or restraint and ordered the Illinois State Board of Education to develop plans within 90 days to reduce the use of restraint and seclusion in any form within three years.
“We’ve had all these meetings, all these meetings, and then at the eleventh hour, they come in and kill the bill,” Rep. Jonathan Carroll, a Democrat from Northbrook, said of the Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance, which lobbies on behalf of the state’s public school principals and administrators, school finance officials and school boards. Carroll, who has spoken about being secluded as a child and the harm it caused, sponsored the House version of the bill.
The alliance and six other groups submitted written opposition together just before lawmakers met last week.
Because of the shortened legislative session due to COVID-19, the language would have been included in an omnibus education bill rather than facing a standalone vote. Lawmakers said it was uncertain whether the omnibus bill could pass in the House with the seclusion ban included, but the Senate was prepared to adopt it. Rather than risk other provisions in the omnibus, including some related to remote learning, the sponsoring lawmakers chose to bring the seclusion legislation back in November’s veto session.
“I’m not sure what our next steps will be or what will happen with this legislation in its current state. But I promise you that I will continue working on banning the practices of locking children in closets and throwing them on the ground,” Carroll wrote in an email to the school groups that opposed the latest version of the legislation.
Rules issued by ISBE that went into effect in April ban locked seclusion and specify that time out and restraint can be used only when there’s an “imminent danger” of serious physical harm. Schools are now required to report every seclusion or restraint incident to the state and provide more employee training.
The rules do not ban restraints in the prone, or face-down, position, instead allowing them for at least one more school year with the goal of eliminating them by July 2021. ISBE officials said the legislative rule-making committee, under pressure from some private schools, insisted that prone restraint be allowed before it would approve the agency’s rules. ISBE has said it supports legislation to ban prone restraint.
“We look forward to reengaging with the General Assembly on this important topic over the next year,” ISBE spokesperson Jackie Matthews said.
Zena Naiditch, president and CEO of Equip for Equality, a disabilities watchdog in Illinois, said the group is “devastated that the legislature failed to act.” Unlike other states that have outlawed or severely restricted schools’ use of seclusion and restraint, “Illinois’ school industry continues to be steadfast in its opposition to reform, and the legislature has been all too willing to bend to their preferences,” she said.
Alison Maley, who represented school groups in the discussions, said the legislation did not address the burden placed on school workers or concerns about student privacy. The draft legislation required that students’ medical and abuse history be considered when developing individualized behavior plans, and the groups worried that confidential information could be shared without appropriate consent.
She said the group supports a ban on prone restraint. “The ISBE rules really did change a lot of things for the better in a significant way,” said Maley, government and public relations director of the Illinois Principals Association. “We are still committed to working on the issue. We want to make sure student safety and educator safety are in mind. We just weren’t there yet when (the legislative) session started back up again.”
Phil Milsk, a legislative adviser for the Illinois Association of School Social Workers, said the organization opposed the legislation because it was not clear that it applied to all schools, including private schools and special education cooperatives. He said requiring two debriefing meetings after each time out or restraint was “excessive” and would be “a huge burden on staff” and families.
The proposed legislation would have required one meeting be held with workers involved in the incident and another with employees who had not been involved, such as social workers or behavioral specialists. The goal of both meetings would be to learn what could have been done differently to avoid the time out or restraint.
“Our school social workers can barely keep up with all the responsibilities that they already have,” said Milsk, who added that the school groups asked that the legislation be modified to address their concerns and they “felt like we weren’t being listened to.”
Kyle Hillman, director of legislative affairs for the National Association of Social Workers, which supported the measure, said he was disappointed that opposition derailed the bill after months of negotiations.
“We have said from the beginning that ... ultimately the bad actors in this state are not willingly going to end this abusive practice,” he wrote in a statement. “We continue to hold out hope our elected officials step up and end this practice now before this becomes another Illinois tragedy story.”
State Sen. Ann Gillespie, an Arlington Heights Democrat who sponsored the Senate bill, said she was disappointed that administrative provisions of the bill, dealing with reporting and meeting requirements, kept it from becoming law.
“There’s gotta be a little pain if you’re trying to overcome inertia,” Gillespie said. “We’ll continue to fight.”