This investigation is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune.
Educators testifying before Illinois lawmakers Tuesday urged an end to the practice of secluding students inside small rooms but said it would take a cultural shift as well as a new law to end years of misuse.
At the first legislative hearing on two reform bills — one in the House, one in the Senate — educators and advocates also pointed to the need for state officials to hold schools accountable and require robust training for employees.
“Schools have become very punitive in how they’re dealing with students with disabilities. This is their go-to method for not doing homework, not putting their shirttail in. You’re just seeing some very abusive use,” said Zena Naiditch, CEO of the disabilities watchdog group Equip for Equality.
The nearly three-hour joint House and Senate education committees hearing came after a Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois investigation, “The Quiet Rooms,” revealed the misuse and overuse of “isolated timeout” and physical restraint in public schools throughout the state.
The investigation included the review of 35,000 instances of seclusion and restraint from September 2017 through early December 2018. Reports showed that students, most of them with behavioral, emotional and intellectual disabilities, were often isolated and restrained as punishment in violation of state law.
Reporters reviewed more than 50,000 pages of incident reports showing that while in seclusion, children cried to be let out, tried to pry open the doors, and urinated and defecated. School workers kept logs of the incidents and often included the children’s own words as they promised to behave and screamed for their parents.
“Some of the specifics in those articles were truly horrifying and we need … to do what we can to protect students in the classrooms,” said Illinois Sen. Ann Gillespie, D-Arlington Heights, sponsor of the Senate legislation that would ban seclusion.
The day after the investigation was published, state education officials banned schools from putting students in locked seclusion rooms alone. The emergency rules initially also banned face-down restraints on the floor, known as prone restraints, but a later amendment allowed them temporarily in emergencies until school employees get training on other techniques. Proposed permanent rules would take effect this spring.
“The bottom line is the only reason this is happening is because we had a newspaper that came out and showed how atrocious things were that were being done,” said Rep. Kathleen Willis, D-Addison.
At Tuesday’s hearing, some lawmakers questioned whether there are times when schools should be able to use seclusion “therapeutically,” including when a staff member is with a student.
“There’s no evidence that shows seclusion rooms are effective for disciplinary actions nor for therapeutic intervention — like, zero,” Kyle Hillman, director of legislative affairs for the National Association of Social Workers, told legislators. He urged the lawmakers to ban seclusion altogether rather than making exceptions or special allowances.
“If a single mother, particularly of color, was locking their child in a closet, standing outside while the child was screaming, defecating itself repeatedly, this body would be asking for criminal charges,” Hillman said. “This is happening in our schools and we’re looking for ways to still make this possible for them to do it.”
Instead, state officials should be adding social workers, behavioral experts and other trained staff to schools, and requiring more and better training on how to help students in crisis, according to educators, advocates and a parent who spoke at the hearing.
The proposed legislation in both the Illinois House and Senate would make the use of seclusion in schools illegal. Having a law in addition to the rules set by the state board is crucial, Naiditch told lawmakers, “so that over time, when the spotlight disappears, we don’t have the schools and educators and (the Illinois State Board of Education) in the future weakening those protections.”
Several people who testified urged lawmakers to ensure that schools are held accountable if they violate the law.
While a 20-year-old Illinois law required schools to document incidents of seclusion and restraint, it did not require that the information be provided to state education officials. The emergency rules announced in November now require schools to alert ISBE within two days of using seclusion or restraint. School districts also were required by Dec. 20 to send the board data on their use of seclusion and restraint dating back two school years.
ISBE officials said they received thousands of emails from schools with data and other records that will be used to look for worrisome patterns, said ISBE legal officer Trisha Olson. ISBE officials also are considering whether to ask the state for funding to create a new department that would investigate complaints about seclusion and restraint and other issues.
State education officials are currently investigating complaints against nine school districts. The governor’s office filed eight complaints against seven districts named in the ProPublica Illinois-Tribune report, and ISBE opened another investigation last month based on a complaint that a school this past fall was unnecessarily restraining students in their seats with lap belts and causing distress.
A school’s funding can be affected if ISBE finds it was at fault. State investigators also can refer individual employees to law enforcement if they believe they committed crimes against children.
Some lawmakers were incredulous that the state board had not previously been monitoring seclusion, even though the last time the U.S. Department of Education calculated state-level seclusion totals, in 2013-14, Illinois had the most incidents of any state. Illinois education officials have said the law did not require schools to alert them about their use of seclusion and restraint.
“You mean to tell me we’ve known this for the last four or five years and we haven’t done anything about it? Where is the oversight, right? Who is going to make sure they monitor what’s going on and enforce this?” asked Rep. Fred Crespo, D-Streamwood, vice chairman of the House education committee.
Some educators asked lawmakers to clarify what they were seeking to ban, specifically asking about spaces where children can go voluntarily to calm down and where there can be weighted blankets, swings and other tools to help. Those spaces typically are called movement or sensory rooms.
“Our schools have many children with sensory needs that use sensory tools and access therapeutic space to support emotional regulation. Would this type of service to the student be no longer available to them?” asked Sally Sover with the Illinois Association of Private Special Education Centers, which represents about 50 schools that serve students with autism, aggressive behavior and other disabilities.
Sensory rooms and other calming areas students use voluntarily and with an adult are allowed in Illinois schools, according to a 31-page document that ISBE provided to schools last month to guide them on the use of seclusion and restraint.
The agency’s proposed rules would require that staff members receive eight hours of training annually that includes de-escalation and trauma-informed care. Some educators said that’s not enough.
“We see that as wholly insufficient,” said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. “When you are not trained fully, repeatedly, consistently over time, when bad things happen, emotions kick in and that’s when things really go haywire.”
Officials from the Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance, which advocates for school administrators and school boards, suggested that seclusion is appropriate for some types of children and told legislators that the schools spotlighted in “The Quiet Rooms” weren’t representative of most schools. That drew a rebuke from Rep. Jonathan Carroll, D-Northbrook, who shared a personal story of his own traumatic experience with seclusion as a child.
“I don’t think it’s productive for us to start circling the wagons and protecting our members. I understand why you’re on the defensive,” he said.
The Northwest Suburban Special Education Organization in Mount Prospect was the only school to have a representative speak on seclusion and restraint. Superintendent Judy Hackett asked lawmakers to take a “balanced approach” and emphasized the need for mental health services and other help.
The district documented putting students in seclusion 1,086 times from September 2017 through early December 2018, according to the Tribune-ProPublica Illinois analysis. During the same period, students were physically restrained more than 2,000 times. District officials did not respond to a request for comment last month about the findings.
A 20-year-old man who attended the hearing said he hadn’t planned to speak but told how he was physically restrained against a wall at his suburban school — an experience he said continues to affect him. Joey Magyar, who now lives in Elk Grove Village, even acted out the restraint so lawmakers would retain that image and understand how helpless he felt.
A parent also shared her story, speaking about her daughter and the need for reform.
“It’s a complex issue with many, many layers, and it has been a crisis for the most vulnerable children for many, many years,” said Venessa Fawley, of Wilmette, who said her daughter has autism. Fawley is also an advocate with an organization called Latinas United in Love for Autism.
“You need to listen to the parents,” she said. “You need to listen to us. As parents, we live it every day.”