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School Employees Have Used Isolated Timeouts Illegally, State Investigations Find

In six of eight districts investigators examined, they found that workers broke the law by improperly secluding students. Parents say the investigations, which were prompted by a Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois story, have not gone far enough.

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

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In the first state review of isolated timeout in Illinois schools, investigators found six of the eight districts they examined violated state law by placing children in seclusion for improper reasons, for too long or without properly notifying their parents.

The investigations by the Illinois State Board of Education came after the first part of a ProPublica Illinois/Chicago Tribune series, published in November, found public schools throughout the state overused seclusion, routinely breaking the law that allowed children to be placed in isolated timeout only when there was a safety issue.

Reporters documented more than 35,000 seclusion and physical restraint incidents in a 15-month period in 100 public school districts. The state banned isolated, locked seclusion the day after “The Quiet Rooms” was published and, for the first time, began monitoring schools’ use of the interventions by requiring every school district to submit three school years’ worth of data.

The state investigations, prompted by complaints filed by Deputy Gov. Jesse Ruiz on behalf of some of the children in the story, were limited to the previous 12 months and did not review schools’ use of physical restraint, which the series also examined and found was misused. Investigators looked at whether schools used seclusion for appropriate reasons and removed children from isolation when it was no longer necessary, whether the spaces met physical requirements, whether employees properly documented incidents and notified parents, and whether staff were properly trained.

In the first state review of isolated timeout in Illinois schools, investigators examined eight districts and recently issued these reports. (ProPublica Illinois)

Investigators, at times, focused their inquiry narrowly. In three cases, they examined only the records of a single child and not the schools’ overall practices, even though they had received the districts’ complete seclusion records. They visited each of the eight school districts but spoke only to school administrators. They interviewed just three parents in all and no students.

In one district, the Eastern Illinois Area Special Education cooperative in Charleston, investigators concluded the law had been violated yet found the violations should not lead to a penalty because the district had improved its practices. The other district where the state found no violations was the Kaskaskia Special Education District, where investigators focused on a single student’s experience.

The six school districts in violation were Black Hawk Area Special Education in East Moline, Lincoln-Way Area Special Education District in Frankfort, Northern Suburban Special Education District in Highland Park, the Special Education District of Lake County, Vermilion Association for Special Education in Danville and Tri-County Special Education in Carbondale.

Some districts are required to state, in writing, that they will follow the law, according to reports detailing the findings at each district. All must provide additional training for school employees, and some must regularly meet with state officials about their progress.

The state is not requiring schools to provide services such as counseling or tutoring to children who were mistreated by staff or harmed by seclusion.

Highland Park attorney Micki Moran, who specializes in special education law, questioned the state’s decision to require more training for districts that did not follow the law, particularly because the investigation found only one district had failed to train staff properly on isolated timeout rules.

“This wasn’t really lack of training. This was lack of following the training. This was going rogue,” she said.

But ISBE officials said additional training and regular monitoring by the agency will help prevent misuse of seclusion in the future. School districts that don’t comply with the corrective action they were assigned will be issued “additional penalties,” an ISBE spokesman said. ISBE can issue sanctions that affect a district’s funding, or refer cases to law enforcement or child welfare officials if it finds abuse or neglect.

A spokeswoman for Gov. J.B. Pritzker said the administration filed the complaints with ISBE to “ensure we are keeping students safe and secure” and is working with the General Assembly, where legislation is pending that would ban seclusion and limit physical restraint.

“The Governor believes that instituting stricter rules and upholding stringent standards around the use of seclusion is necessary and the administration continues to leave all options on the table when it comes to protecting our children,” Jordan Abudayyeh said.

As part of ISBE’s investigations, workers read and analyzed seclusion incidents for the eight districts under review, from November 2018 to November 2019. ISBE officials said they now are going through other districts’ records and could open more investigations. As part of new state rules, all Illinois districts were required to submit three school years’ worth of records to the state and must alert ISBE within 48 hours of a student being secluded or restrained.

“It’s quite fair to say that there is no issue of ‘case closed’ for any school district in the state of Illinois at this time,” ISBE legal officer Trisha Olson said.

State investigators found that at Illinois’ largest special education cooperative, the Special Education District of Lake County, half of the 874 incidents of isolated timeout in the one-year period were not prompted by a safety concern, a violation of state law.

Investigators also found that some students were being repeatedly secluded within a short time period, but school workers did not document whether they had considered an alternate strategy. A Tribune/ProPublica Illinois investigation into one of the district’s schools, Gages Lake, found child welfare officials had opened at least 21 abuse investigations in the previous year following reports that workers had grabbed children by the wrists, shoved them into walls and thrown them to the ground in the seclusion area.

The doors have been removed in the “Office Intervention” area at Gages Lake School, where students previously were put in isolated timeouts. (Special Education District of Lake County)

SEDOL Superintendent Valerie Donnan said the district already had taken doors off the timeout spaces, provided additional staff training and hired more supervisors. “Our focused and collaborative efforts are making our schools a safer, more stable and supportive teaching and learning environment,” she wrote in a statement.

At the Northern Suburban Special Education District in Highland Park, investigators found that nearly 44% of the 775 seclusions carried out there in one year had no documented safety reason, among other violations. Superintendent Kurt Schneider said in an email that the district’s current practices focus on preventive strategies and meet the requirements of the law.

And at the Tri-County Special Education cooperative in Carbondale, investigators confirmed that students had been forced to perform tasks such as writing sentences or sitting for specified lengths of time to earn release from a seclusion room, a violation of the law exposed in the Tribune/ProPublica Illinois reporting. There, too, school workers had regularly secluded children for reasons other than safety and for longer than necessary — 21.5% of seclusions lasted more than 45 minutes, according to the state report. State rules required seclusion to end no more than 30 minutes after a child’s unsafe behavior ended.

Tri-County also was cited for its potentially dangerous timeout spaces; the investigation documented exposed pipes with sharp metal edges and ledges that students could climb. Investigators cited records that questioned whether school workers could see students in seclusion rooms, as required by the law. “Student refused to move where staff could see him,” one incident report stated.

Tri-County Director Jan Pearcy said in an email that the cooperative is complying with the corrective action requirements.

A timeout room at Jonesboro Elementary, in the Tri-County Special Education district. (Obtained by public records request)

The Vermilion Association for Special Education, where investigators focused on the seclusion of one 10-year-old boy profiled in the story, was cited for poor documentation and insufficient parent notification and told that it had violated the boy’s rights under special education law. ISBE said the district must train its staff on the state rules by Feb. 21. The district director did not respond to a request for comment.

The boy’s mother, Darla Knipe of Danville, said she was upset that a state investigator spoke with her for only about 20 minutes, did not examine the district’s frequent use of physical restraints and did not enforce more penalties. “They hurt him during restraints. Nothing was mentioned about that,” she said. “The school should be held liable for more.”

At the Black Hawk Area Special Education District in East Moline, nearly 23% of seclusions had no documented safety reason, the state review found. Christan Schrader, the district’s director, said Black Hawk cooperated with ISBE investigators and already has conducted additional training.

“We are continuing to partner with parents to be transparent about all interventions used to help students manage their emotions and behavior in school,” Schrader wrote in an email.

State officials also cited the Lincoln-Way Area Special Education district, in Chicago’s southwest suburbs, for unlawfully using seclusion. But the investigation focused only on one child named in the ProPublica Illinois/Tribune article, a boy who had been placed in isolated timeout for many hours at the beginning of this school year.

The state investigation examined records from 41 incidents of seclusion involving the 9-year-old boy and found no documented safety reason in 12 of them. The records, covering five weeks at the start of this school year, showed he was in isolated timeout for a total of 1,140 minutes, or 19 hours, according to the ISBE findings. The district must now provide a written statement that it will follow new state rules and provide staff training by March. A district official did not respond to a request for comment.

The boy’s mother, Angie Martin, said the repercussions are too light — particularly since the school already has to follow new rules — and that staff members should be held accountable. She said the state investigator spoke with her for only 10 minutes.

“You’re admitting the school isn’t doing by law what they are supposed to be doing, but it’s like, OK, we’re just going to move on now,” she said. “I’m kind of dumbfounded by it. No wonder schools don’t follow the rules and regulations — there’s no repercussions.”

At the Kaskaskia Special Education District, where state officials also looked at one child’s records, the investigation found no evidence that the 7-year-old boy had been put in isolated timeout and therefore did not cite the district for any violations. School records showed he had been put in a timeout area within his classroom for behavior including stomping his feet and “pouting,” but he wasn’t isolated, according to the state report.

Gabriel, a student in the Kaskaskia Special Education District, hugs his mother, Laura Myers, before bedtime in their Centralia, Illinois, home last year. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune)

Laura Myers, the student’s mother, said she spoke with an ISBE investigator for 13 minutes and was disappointed that the investigation didn’t examine the use of physical restraint on her son or look into the district as a whole. An ISBE spokesman said officials “comprehensively investigated each complaint and will continue to monitor.”

The news organizations’ broader review of the district’s school, Bridges Learning Center near Centralia, found isolated timeout had been used 1,288 times there in 15 months. The 12,371 pages of records provided to reporters showed children regularly were placed in seclusion because they were disobedient or disruptive, reasons that violated the law.

“It makes me sick that they aren’t taking it any farther than this,” Myers said. “It was a way for them to say, ‘We did something about it,’ but they aren’t really doing anything about it.”

The district told the state investigator the complaint against it was “baseless” and said staff had used the five booths only when necessary. The district director did not respond to a request for comment.

In a response included in the state report, the Kaskaskia Special Education District said: “The District expresses profound disappointment and frustration that its compliance with state regulations — which include documenting each instance of isolated timeout and physical restraint — and baseless speculation by parents and journalists have resulted in it being demonized as an institution that frightens and harms children with disabilities.”

ISBE said the state recently opened a second review related to the boy’s restraints at school and could pursue a broader investigation. “The remaining records from the District are still under review; therefore, the need to open a systemic review is yet to be determined,” an ISBE spokesman said in a statement.

Investigators also found no violations at the Eastern Illinois Area Special Education district in Charleston despite determining that the district had regularly secluded students for an unlawful reason: noncompliant behavior.

The investigator noted that a review of documentation showed that school employees had recently stopped isolating children for not following directions and had therefore “addressed the issue.” An ISBE spokesman said the agency does not issue violations when no corrective action is necessary. The district director did not respond to a request for comment.

Zena Naiditch, president of disability rights watchdog Equip for Equality, said the organization supports parents’ desire to have the state conduct additional investigation into some districts.

“A quality investigation is timely, thorough and objective,” she said. ISBE needs to help schools change their culture and ensure that “appropriate consequences are given to noncompliant schools and that schools are ordered to provide help to student victims.”

To tell reporters about seclusion practices at your child’s school, email [email protected].

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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Portrait of Jodi S. Cohen

Jodi S. Cohen

Jodi S. Cohen is a reporter for ProPublica Illinois, 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. Previously, Jodi worked at the Chicago Tribune for 14 years, where she covered higher education and helped expose a secret admissions system at the University of Illinois, among other investigations. Contact Jodi by email and on Twitter.

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