The Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced Monday that “The Quiet Rooms” by ProPublica Illinois reporter Jodi S. Cohen, the Chicago Tribune’s Jennifer Smith Richards and ProPublica Illinois reporting fellow Lakeidra Chavis is the winner of the Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics. The series showed how Illinois schools frequently put children in stark “isolated timeout” spaces, or physically restrained them, for reasons that violated state law.
“Cohen and Smith Richards had to navigate a string of difficult decisions in exposing the pattern of abuse taking place across Illinois public schools, beginning with how to find out what children went through without traumatizing them all over again,” said Lucas Graves, chair of the Shadid Award judging committee. “This series sparked widespread reforms while also earning praise from both school supervisors and the families of children involved — a testament to how careful, thorough and honest the reporters were as they worked on the story.”
Seclusion and physical restraint of children in Illinois is supposed to happen only in limited situations and only for safety reasons. But state education officials have failed to monitor the use of these practices, which can inflict trauma and injury, and parents often are told little about what happens to their children.
“The Quiet Rooms” began with Cohen and Smith Richards puzzling over federal education data indicating that Illinois had a high number of isolated timeouts for students — instances where they were locked away, alone in a room. The self-reported numbers contradicted the belief in education circles that Illinois had an effective and restrictive law regulating the practice. So the reporters dug in.
The state requires school districts to document every use of seclusion, and the reporters started sending Freedom of Information Act requests across the state to obtain those records. They ultimately sent more than 300 public records requests, and Chavis joined them to create the first-ever database on the use of seclusion and restraint in the state.
The findings proved shocking. Children were sent to isolation after refusing to do classwork or throwing Legos. School employees used isolated timeouts out of frustration or as punishment. Dangerous physical restraints were employed without adequate reason or training. Documents and interviews provided a rare look at what happens in these encounters, with children begging for mercy and crying out for parents. In all, reporters found a pattern of use that violated state law and put children in peril.
To write sensitively about vulnerable children, reporters tackled several thorny ethical issues. Faced with writing vividly about the use of rooms that journalists largely were not permitted to see, reporters sought alternative ways to be certain they could fairly describe typical seclusion spaces. When they met with families whose children felt comfortable talking about their own experiences with isolation, Cohen and Smith Richards asked the parents if they thought it would be harmful for their child to draw what the isolation space looked like. After careful discussion and sensitivity to how the child might feel, reporters collected drawings and ultimately published several with permission so that the spaces could be seen from the child’s perspective.
Many parents were reluctant to speak with reporters at first, worried that they would imperil their child’s enrollment at schools they viewed as their only or last option. The reporters worked hard to communicate how the journalistic process works, what to expect when the stories published and what the impact might be of telling personal stories in a news investigation.
The investigation inspired bold and swift action. The day after the first story was published, Illinois’ governor and state education officials committed to sweeping change, beginning with emergency restrictions, and legislators began rallying around reform bills. The state board of education banned locked seclusion immediately. State officials also put new restrictions on schools’ use of physical restraint, including banning prone restraint.
For the first time, Illinois is monitoring restraint and timeout, with schools required to notify state officials within 48 hours of using the measures. The state board investigated districts named in “The Quiet Rooms” and confirmed the misuse of seclusion in six of them. The board also announced plans to invest $7.5 million over the next three years to train Illinois educators on more positive ways to work with students.