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How We Reported This Story

We created the first-ever database of thousands of incidents of restraint and seclusion in Illinois.

This investigation is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune.

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Before the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois published “The Quiet Rooms,” an investigation into the practice of isolating students in seclusion spaces, the state of Illinois did not collect any data on how often public schools seclude or physically restrain students, including why they did it or what types of restraint they used.

Though state rules required schools to document each incident in detail, these records were not submitted for review to the Illinois State Board of Education or any other state agency.

And although public school districts are required to provide the U.S. Department of Education certain data on physical restraint as well as seclusion, the most recent available numbers are from the 2015-16 school year. Government watchdogs also have found that the self-reported data is significantly flawed.

Last month, after the investigation was published, ISBE said it would begin collecting data on all instances of timeout and physical restraint in Illinois schools.

For “The Quiet Rooms” and the subsequent story on schools’ use of physical restraint, reporters from ProPublica Illinois and the Tribune used the Freedom of Information Act to seek the detailed incident reports kept by schools in accordance with state rules.

Illinois has more than 900 school districts, including 68 regional districts or cooperatives that serve only students with special needs. Reporters filed public-records requests with the 133 districts that reported to the federal government they had secluded students in the 2015-16 school year, plus all of the state’s special-education districts and cooperatives regardless of their federal reporting status.

The public records requests asked for all narrative reports on isolated timeout and physical restraint incidents, logs of isolated timeout use, staff training documentation and parent notifications from the 2017-18 school year through early December 2018.

Nearly 200 districts responded to the requests, and more than 100 provided records documenting their use of seclusion or restraint.

Over the course of nearly a year, a team of reporters from both news organizations logged each incident into a database, including the location, date, documented reasons for the intervention, names of staff involved, whether parents were notified and more. The age, grade, race and gender of the student were noted if this information was available.

In all, reporters examined nearly 50,000 pages of incident records.

For incidents involving restraint, reporters logged the type of restraint used and the length of time the child was restrained.

Reporters also reviewed the reasons school employees gave for using physical restraint and grouped the reasons into categories, which included disruption, physical aggression, verbal abuse, damaging property, not participating in class and being disrespectful. For example, if the document mentioned a child “kicking staff,” it was categorized as physical aggression.

Illinois law allows physical restraint only when students pose a safety threat to themselves or others, such as by attacking an employee or fellow student. Reporters noted in the database whether school employees had documented such a safety issue and, if so, whether it occurred before or after the start of the physical intervention.

In all, reporters were able to quantify about 15,000 restraints by about 100 districts over the 15-month time period examined.

Some districts said they had no records to provide because they no longer use seclusion or restraint. Some special-education cooperatives said that although they offer certain educational programs, they do not operate schools and thus had no seclusion or restraint incidents to report.

Other school districts provided individual incident summaries but not full reports. Some districts that initially denied the records request later provided a total number of restraint incidents after a ProPublica lawyer intervened; these were included in the database, but it was impossible to assess whether these districts followed state rules.

Eight districts refused to provide any records. They are Barrington 220, Collinsville 10, Massac 1, Rock Island-Milan 41, Shawnee 84, West Carroll 314, Woodridge 68 and East St. Louis Area Joint Agreement.

Not all records that districts provided were included in the database. In some cases, districts sent incident reports detailing interventions that did not qualify as physical restraint under Illinois law, such as when school employees physically removed a disruptive student from class or briefly put their hands on a child. Those cases were excluded.

Conversely, reporters sometimes entered incidents in the database that school officials did not consider to be restraint. For example, some officials recorded details of a seclusion but did not note on official forms that restraint had also been used, even though such information was detailed in the document. Reporters included such cases in the analysis.

Because the forms used to document seclusion and physical restraint varied from district to district, a larger team of reporters spot-checked a sample of records to ensure that data had been entered consistently across districts and to look for systemic flaws in the data entry.

The team examined a sample of 631 records from 53 districts, focusing on 14 fields critical to the reporting. If spot-checkers did not agree with the way a particular record was entered into the database, they flagged it for further investigation, and the original reporting team determined whether an error had occurred. Although a small percentage of fields contained such disagreements, no widespread problems were found.

To understand the training that school employees received to learn how to safely manage a student in crisis — including the use of restraint techniques — reporters reviewed instructional materials and other documents for more than 110 districts.

One of the reporters participated in five days of Therapeutic Crisis Intervention training for people who work with children; two observed a two-day Crisis Prevention Institute training session for school workers.

The investigation also drew on reviews of civil lawsuits, federal and state special-education complaints, police reports, injury reports, school handbooks and more than 120 interviews with experts, parents, children, advocates and school employees. In the story, reporters named students only with the permission of their families.

Jennifer Smith Richards is a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, where she specializes in data analysis. She previously covered schools and education for more than a decade at newspapers around the country. Contact Jennifer by email and on Twitter.

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