This story is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune.
Two days after Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered Illinois schools to immediately stop secluding children alone in timeout rooms, educators and parents tried to grasp the implications of the new prohibition on a practice that had been embedded in schools for decades.
School districts sent letters to parents saying they would no longer put children in locked rooms, while the head of the Illinois State Board of Education apologized to families and said the law that had been in effect “did not sufficiently regulate” isolated timeout, causing “lasting trauma.”
Illinois officials issued emergency rules banning isolated timeouts and some types of physical restraint on Wednesday, the day after ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune published an investigation that revealed widespread misuse of seclusion rooms. State and federal lawmakers are vowing to seek a permanent ban next.
The hectic week also saw the governor’s office file complaints against eight school districts named in the news story, prompting the state Board of Education to open investigations in those districts and to pledge to look into others where families raise concerns. State investigators who believe school employees committed crimes against children will refer those individuals to law enforcement, and those who investigators believe committed abuse or neglect will be referred to the Department of Children and Family Services, a state board spokeswoman said Friday.
For the Tribune/ProPublica Illinois investigation, reporters examined 20,000 incidents of isolated timeout from September 2017 to December 2018 and found students were put in isolation every day for reasons that violated the law, including as punishment or to force compliance. State law, in place for two decades, said isolated timeouts should be used only when students pose a safety threat to themselves or others.
“These accounts are disturbing, and we recognize and appreciate they may be concerning to parents, students, staff, and members of the community,” the superintendent of Northern Suburban Special Education District in Highland Park wrote in a letter to parents, adding that isolated timeout was used only “as a last resort” for safety reasons. “NSSED is closely monitoring this situation and will continue to abide by ISBE’s guidance.”
At the state board’s regularly scheduled meeting Friday morning, state Superintendent Carmen Ayala directly addressed students and parents affected by the use of seclusion detailed in the ProPublica Illinois/Tribune investigation.
“What happened to you is appalling, inexcusable and deeply saddening,” Ayala said. “The Illinois State Board of Education will aggressively investigate all cases and pursue disciplinary and corrective action to the full extent of the law.”
The investigation revealed how children begged to be released from seclusion rooms, cried out in desperation and rammed into the walls in anger. Staff members kept moment-by-moment logs that often included the children’s own words while in isolated timeout.
Speaking at the ISBE board meeting, school leaders and advocates for people with disabilities called seclusion a “very serious form of child abuse” and a “stain on the fibers of our school buildings.” They praised the emergency ban but said it must become law.
Mark Klaisner, who heads the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, offered his group’s help as ISBE develops permanent rules. The emergency rules expire in 150 days.
“No emergency rules are ever perfect, but something needed to be done immediately and we support that 100%,” Klaisner said. “We think you did the right thing this week by putting your foot down firmly.”
A parent at Bridges Learning Center, which is operated by the Kaskaskia Special Education District in southern Illinois, said she saw staff carrying away the doors of the school’s timeout booths. Wendy Short said she was there to tell school officials that her son would not be returning and to get records of his time in the booths.
Bridges was highlighted in the Tribune/ProPublica Illinois investigation; the school had used isolated timeout 1,288 times in 15 months. It has about 65 students. The district’s director confirmed Friday that the doors had been removed.
As schools adjust to the emergency rules, some parents told reporters Friday that school administrators had forced them to pick up children whom employees had wanted to seclude but could not.
In East Moline, Kirsten Montgomery said she was summoned by a teacher after her 7-year-old son threw objects at school. The staff at The Center, which is operated by the Black Hawk Area Special Education District, told her the boy couldn’t stay there because they could no longer use the “cool-down room,” she said.
School workers also wanted Montgomery to force her son to clean up the mess he’d made, she said.
She wondered: If his behavior was so unsafe that he couldn’t be at school, why would he be safe enough to stay and clean? She said she took her son home.
“I’d much rather him be home with me than locked in a room and scared and angry and hurting himself,” Montgomery said. She said her son had badly bruised his arm as he repeatedly hit the window of the school’s timeout room while there for two hours on Tuesday, wanting to be let out.
The Tribune/ProPublica Illinois investigation documented about 850 seclusions at The Center in the time period examined. Christan Schrader, director the Black Hawk district, declined to comment on the incident, citing student confidentiality.
Jason Mann, who sends his son to Giant Steps in suburban Lisle, said the school asked that the boy be picked up. “They sensed he was about to go into crisis,” Mann said. “What happens on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday?”
Mann said he feels the now-banned tactics are necessary. “The state took away a few key tools,” he said.
The Lisle private school serves students with autism who often are transferred there when they can’t be educated in their traditional public school. The school’s executive director, Sylvia Smith, said staff must use prone restraint — a physical restraint in which students are put face-down on the floor — to calm some students. Without prone restraint and isolated timeout as options, there will be students whom Giant Steps can’t serve, she said.
“We can’t help them to self-regulate because we don’t have the same tools we had just yesterday,” Smith said. She said students are restrained face-down on the ground if they are biting, hitting or kicking. “If we cannot bring this child into regulation, we have to call 911.”
Kevin Rubenstein, president of the Illinois Alliance of Administrators of Special Education, pledged to work with ISBE to address issues that emerge. “As advocates of children we must address these facts: Some of our schools have staff that are poorly trained; other schools have staff that are not sure how to support students with challenging behavior,” he said.
He ended his testimony by listing several of the children whose experiences with seclusion were highlighted in the ProPublica Illinois/Tribune investigation.
“Isaiah, Eli, Dalton, Jace, Zayvion and Gabriel, and every child in our state deserves better,” he said.
Deputy Gov. Jesse Ruiz on Wednesday filed nine complaints on behalf of children named in the investigation. Two are focused on the Kansas Treatment and Learning Center, run by the Eastern Illinois Area Special Education district in Charleston.
The other complaints are against the Kaskaskia Special Education District, the Black Hawk Area Special Education District, Lincoln-Way Area Special Education, Northern Suburban Special Education District, Tri-County Special Education, Vermilion Association for Special Education and the Special Education District of Lake County.
ISBE spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said schools found to have violated the law face various consequences. Educators could have their licenses suspended or revoked or have to undergo training. Schools could be put on probation or lose their recognition status, which can make them ineligible for state funding.
The emergency rules say that when a student is taken to timeout, a trained adult must be with him or her in the room and the door can’t be locked. The rules apply to any school that serves public school students, including private schools that students attend when they can’t be served by their home districts.
The rules also address the use of physical restraint, including by banning restraints in which a child is on the ground and where their ability to breathe may be restricted.
The rules require school districts to alert ISBE of all instances of timeout and physical restraint within 48 hours, as well as to provide data dating back three school years. State officials had not previously monitored these practices.
State and federal lawmakers are also taking action.
On Thursday, state Rep. Jonathan Carroll, D-Northbrook, filed a bill that would ban seclusion at schools entirely. As of Friday afternoon, it had 46 co-sponsors.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin tweeted this week that he would support legislation to end seclusion, which he called a “medieval practice.” And U.S. Rep. Don Beyer, D-Virginia, said he plans to reintroduce legislation that stalled last year — the Keeping All Students Safe Act — that would prohibit seclusion and limit the use of physical restraint in all public schools that receive federal funds.
“The stories you reported from Illinois were sadly very similar to those we’ve heard in Virginia and from across the country, and they will certainly have bearing on the bill,” Beyer said. “I have a lot of confidence that this will be the law in our country in a short to medium time period, six months to two years.”
Jennifer Smith Richards is a Chicago Tribune reporter. Jodi S. Cohen and Lakeidra Chavis are reporters for ProPublica Illinois.