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Readers Choked Back Tears. Some Struggled to Keep Reading. We Understand.

A day after our reporting, Illinois ended isolated seclusion of children in schools across the state. What happened? Children’s voices were heard.

A seclusion room at Braun Educational Center in Oak Forest, Illinois, which is operated by the Southwest Cook County Cooperative Association for Special Education. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune)

This was originally published in the ProPublica Illinois newsletter (sign up for it here) and the Chicago Tribune Daywatch newsletter (sign up for it here).

This week, we published an investigation in collaboration with the Chicago Tribune about the use — and misuse — of seclusion rooms that children are shut inside, alone, in public schools across Illinois.

We had worked on the story for nearly a year. Day after day, night after night, we read the details of more than 20,000 incidents of “isolated timeout” and entered them by hand into a database we created. We did the same for physical restraint, when staff members put their hands on a child; we’ll publish that story in the next few weeks.

Many of the isolated timeout incident reports we read — some 50,000 pages — included what happened to children in seclusion, often in their own words as school employees kept moment-by-moment logs. The children, most of them with disabilities, begged to be let out, cried for their parents, expressed despair. We included their quotes throughout our story. We thought it was crucial that their voices be heard.

And then, the day after the investigation published, Illinois officials announced an immediate ban on secluding students alone, in locked rooms. Gov. J.B. Pritzker called the practice “appalling” and said: “Isolated seclusion will end now; it traumatizes children, does lasting damage to the most vulnerable and violates the most deeply held values of my administration and the State of Illinois.”

State schools Superintendent Carmen Ayala said that isolated timeout and physical restraint had been “misused and overused to a shocking extent.” “The data and stories from students and parents are appalling, inexcusable and deeply saddening,” she said.

The emergency rules, filed Wednesday, don’t ban the use of timeout rooms entirely but say that a trained adult must be in the room with the child and the door can’t be locked. If a timeout with an adult is used, it must be only for therapeutic reasons or to protect the safety of students and staff. Our investigation found that it was often being used illegally — as punishment, to force compliance or to contain disruptive students.

The new rules also require school districts to provide data to the Illinois State Board of Education on all instances of timeout and restraint dating back three school years. ISBE, which previously had not monitored seclusion or restraint, is now empowered to investigate schools’ use of these practices and take “appropriate disciplinary and corrective action.”

On Nov. 20, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he directed the Illinois State Board of Education to make emergency rules ending the use of seclusion in Illinois schools.

Then, on Thursday, Rep. Jonathan Carroll, D-Northbrook, filed legislation that would completely ban isolated timeout in Illinois. A former special education teacher, he wrote an emotional blog post about his own experience as a child in school seclusion rooms, saying that, at 45, he still has “nightmares because of this treatment.”

That’s a lot of swift action.

Throughout the past year, we met with families all around the state whose children spent time in seclusion. These families weren’t seeking attention. Frankly, they were shocked that anyone cared. They inevitably asked what we thought or hoped would happen by writing about seclusion.

We told them we didn’t know. We would write the stories and maybe someone would listen.

What happened was that readers of ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune, including state officials with the power to act, listened to the children’s voices and their words.

“Why? Why are you doing this to me?” — a student at Bridges Learning Center, a school near Centralia.

“Please, please, please open the door. Please, I’ll be good. Open the door and I’ll be quiet.” — an elementary student in Mattoon.

“I’m crying alone!” — an elementary student at Kansas Treatment and Learning Center in Kansas, Illinois.

Many readers have told us they struggled to hold back tears as they read the words of these children. Some told us they had to put the story down for a while, regain composure and return to it later.

We understand.

When reading their words and hearing their voices over the past year, we, too, were moved. We were disturbed. We cried.

Illinois’ current law mandated that school employees document seclusion incidents, but there was no requirement that anyone read them. The state didn’t collect data to know how often it was being used.

That’s why we took this on. Isn’t it better to know?

As Ayala noted, it was the data we collected and analyzed, combined with the children’s voices, that led to the state’s quick action.

We hope you will read the story, too, and let us know what you think. Thank you to everyone who has already reached out. You can reach us at [email protected].

Jodi S. Cohen and Lakeidra Chavis are reporters at ProPublica Illinois. Jennifer Smith Richards is a reporter at the Chicago Tribune.

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