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The Federal Government Collects Data on How Often Schools Seclude Children. The Numbers Don’t Add Up.

Even though school districts are required to report their use of seclusion and restraint to the U.S. Department of Education, it can be difficult for parents to see the full picture.

Kayla Siegmeier plays with her son, Carson, at his Illinois school in August. Their Crystal Lake school district has not sent seclusion data to the federal government in recent years. “What they are doing is harming the kids and the parents by not allowing them to understand what is truly happening across the whole district,” she said. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune)

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

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In fall 2015, Glacier Ridge Elementary School in Crystal Lake first used its Blue Room, a padded space that allows school workers to place students in “isolated timeout” for safety reasons.

Students were secluded in that room more than 120 times during the 2015-16 school year, according to records obtained by ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune. Yet the district, in its required reporting to the federal government, said it hadn’t used seclusion at all that school year.

Crystal Lake District 47 is an example of how even with federal reporting requirements, it’s nearly impossible to know how often some Illinois schools seclude children. An investigation by the Tribune and ProPublica Illinois found widespread use of seclusion but little transparency.

All public school districts are required to report their use of seclusion and physical restraint to the U.S. Department of Education as part of its Civil Rights Data Collection, which the department uses to help investigate discrimination complaints and to ensure districts follow federal policies. The data is collected every other school year and published online.

Because the Illinois State Board of Education does not monitor the use of seclusion or restraint in public schools, the federal data is the only systematic way for communities to determine whether and how frequently those practices are being used in their schools.

Some public schools, however, either reported incorrect data or failed to submit any information — making it difficult for parents to know with certainty whether their children’s school secludes or restrains students. A spokeswoman for Crystal Lake District 47 said its failure to report accurate data was a mistake.

To determine whether Illinois districts complied with reporting requirements, the Tribune and ProPublica Illinois filed requests under the state’s Freedom of Information Act with 75 randomly selected districts where the federal data showed no instances of seclusion for the 2015-16 school year. Those requests asked for records documenting the use of seclusion or restraint from 2015 through the end of 2018 — records that Illinois law requires districts to keep.

In addition to Crystal Lake, five districts provided records showing they had used seclusion or restraint in 2015-16 despite indicating to the Department of Education they had not.

The superintendent of Big Hollow District 38 in Ingleside, in the suburbs north of Chicago, said he was unaware the district had failed to report its three instances of restraint.

“There’s a lot of (Office for Civil Rights) data, so if that one slipped through the cracks, it was definitely not intentional by any means,” Superintendent Bob Gold said.

Chris Johnson, an administrator at New Trier Township High School District 203, said a “records management issue” was likely responsible for the district’s failure to report the six restraints that school workers used on students. He said the district will look into amending its reports for previous years.

“We always strive to have our data be accurate and to be as transparent as possible to the community, so if there’s an opportunity to amend it we will,” Johnson said.

Districts are allowed to correct what they’ve submitted, but those corrections do not change what is available in the Department of Education’s searchable database. Instead, revisions are noted in a document on a separate part of the site.

For some Illinois districts, reporters also found dramatic discrepancies between the number of seclusions reported in the federal data and the number documented in records just two school years later, raising questions about whether the districts had underreported the use of seclusion in 2015-16.

For example, the Black Hawk Area Special Education District in East Moline reported that four children were secluded one time each in the 2015-16 school year. But records examined by reporters show that from September 2017 to December 2018, employees secluded children close to 850 times.

The district’s director, Christan Schrader, said she wasn’t aware of the disparity but was not surprised. “Maybe someone didn’t take the time to put in the accurate information,” she said.

The Northern Suburban Special Education District in Highland Park, meanwhile, reported 146 seclusions for the 2015-16 school year. That is significantly lower than the 968 seclusions documented in records examined by reporters from September 2017 to December 2018.

Andy Piper, an administrator for the district, said many factors contribute to how often seclusion is used in a given year, including student enrollment. “Even a handful of students can significantly impact the total number of reported incidents,” he said.

Some regional special education cooperatives, which draw students from many districts, didn’t provide information on seclusion and restraint to the Department of Education for 2015-16. The Tribune and ProPublica Illinois found that these cooperatives used those practices hundreds of times in subsequent years.

Administrators told reporters that it was the responsibility of their member districts to provide that data, but those districts didn’t report either. Officials from some member districts said they didn’t understand who was responsible for reporting, the district or the co-op.

A state Board of Education spokeswoman said it is not the agency’s responsibility to determine which districts should submit data because it is a federal reporting requirement.

Gineen O’Neil, director of the Southwest Cook County Cooperative Association for Special Education, provided an email from federal officials saying that she did not have to report her cooperative’s use of seclusion and restraint.

After questions from reporters about who should report the information, O’Neil said she created a system to provide data on seclusion and restraint to her 11 member districts so they can report it.

The Belleville Area Special Services Cooperative, near St. Louis, allowed a photographer to visit two timeout rooms at Pathways school. The padded rooms have fluorescent lights and observation windows, which students have scratched. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune)

In January, the U.S. Department of Education announced a plan to improve the Civil Rights Data Collection, and in August, it sent a letter to districts asking them to check the accuracy of the data on seclusion and restraint they submitted for the 2017-18 school year. The letter noted that the recommendations were based in part on a June report from the Government Accountability Office that concluded the database does not “accurately capture” how often the practices are employed.

“I think that would be concerning to any parent or policymaker who is interested in understanding the scope of seclusion and restraint incidents in public schools,” said Jacqueline Nowicki, a director with the GAO.

Kevin Rubenstein, president of the Illinois Alliance of Administrators of Special Education, said schools should be required to report their use of seclusion and restraint to the state Board of Education.

“We report on pretty much everything else,” said Rubenstein, an administrator in the Lake Bluff school district in Chicago’s northern suburbs. “Certainly if I am working at the state Board of Education and I see … high numbers from one school district or another that demonstrate a high level of restraint or seclusion, I think we need to take a closer look at that.”

Crystal Lake District 47 officials said the next time federal data is released to the public, for the 2017-18 school year, the data for the district will be inaccurate again. It did not report its use of seclusion or restraint.

Data obtained by ProPublica Illinois and the Tribune shows children were secluded at least 130 times at district schools. The district now has timeout rooms in five schools.

A district spokeswoman called the data omissions an oversight and said the district would provide accurate data to the federal government in the future.

Kayla Siegmeier, who has a second grader at one of the schools, criticized the district’s failure to inform federal officials.

“What they are doing is harming the kids and the parents by not allowing them to understand what is truly happening across the whole district,” she said.

Jennifer Smith Richards is a data reporter at the Chicago Tribune.

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Lakeidra Chavis

Lakeidra Chavis is a former reporting fellow for ProPublica Illinois.

Portrait of Jodi S. Cohen

Jodi S. Cohen

Jodi S. Cohen is a reporter for ProPublica, where she has revealed misconduct in a psychiatric research study at the University of Illinois at Chicago, exposed a college financial aid scam and uncovered flaws in the Chicago Police Department’s disciplinary system.

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