This investigation is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune.
The state of Illinois does not collect any data on how often public schools put students in seclusion, why they do it or for how long.
Though state rules require schools to document each “isolated timeout” incident in detail, these records are stored by schools and are not submitted for review to the Illinois State Board of Education or any other state agency.
Public school districts are required to provide the U.S. Department of Education certain data on seclusion as well as physical restraint, but 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.
To understand how frequently Illinois schools used seclusion and the reasons why, reporters from the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois used the Freedom of Information Act to seek the detailed incident reports kept by schools in accordance with state rules.
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.
In all, reporters examined nearly 50,000 pages of records.
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, length of time the child was secluded, documented reasons for the seclusion, 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.
Reporters reviewed the reasons school employees gave for using seclusion and grouped them into categories, which included disruption, physical aggression, verbal abuse, damaging property, not participating in class and being disrespectful. For example, if the narrative mentioned a child “kicking staff,” it was categorized as physical aggression.
Illinois law allows seclusion 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 isolated timeout.
Illinois has more than 900 school districts, including 68 regional districts or cooperatives that serve only students with special needs. Reporters focused their records requests on the 133 districts that reported to the federal government that they had secluded students in the 2015-16 school year, the most recent available data.
Reporters filed public-records requests with all of these districts, plus the state’s special-education districts and cooperatives, regardless of their federal reporting status.
In a handful of cases, parents contacted reporters to say their district was using seclusion even though it hadn’t reported doing so to the federal government. Reporters sought records from those districts too.
Nearly 200 districts responded to the requests and more than 100 provided records documenting their use of seclusion or restraint.
Some districts said they had no records to provide because they no longer use these practices. 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 seclusion incidents after a ProPublica lawyer intervened; these were included in the database, but it was impossible to assess whether they followed state seclusion rules.
Nine districts refused to provide any records. They were Barrington 220, Collinsville 10, Massac 1, Rock Island-Milan 41, Shawnee 84, West Carroll 314, Woodridge 68, East St. Louis Area Joint Agreement and the Southern Will County Cooperative for Special Education.
In all, reporters were able to quantify about 20,000 seclusions by 83 districts over the 15-month time period examined. They also documented incidents of physical restraint to be explored in an upcoming story.
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 isolated timeout under Illinois law, such as when students went to a seclusion room voluntarily to calm down and left when they wanted. Those cases were excluded.
Conversely, reporters sometimes included incidents in the database that school officials did not consider to be isolated timeouts. For example, some officials said the door of the timeout room had to be closed for the incident to qualify as seclusion. Reporters included such cases in the analysis if the students were not free to leave, in accordance with Illinois rules.
Because the forms used to document isolated timeouts 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.
In addition to the records requests used to create the database, reporters filed a separate set of requests designed to test the accuracy of the seclusion and restraint data collected by the U.S. Department of Education from Illinois schools.
For 75 randomly selected districts that had reported zero instances of seclusion to the federal government for the 2015-16 school year, reporters asked officials for incident reports, logs and parental notifications dating to 2015 to check whether some of those districts had in fact isolated children during that period.
To understand the physical spaces in which children were isolated, reporters asked more than 20 districts to allow them to visit. Only three did. Reporters then filed an additional 20 public-records requests for floor plans, images, dimensions and other information about timeout rooms.
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.