The Education Writers Association announced Thursday that ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune are finalists for its National Award for Education Reporting in the category of public service. The news organizations were recognized for “The Quiet Rooms,” a joint series that showed how Illinois schools frequently put children in stark “isolated timeout” spaces or physically restrained them for reasons that violated state law.
Seclusion and physical restraint of children in Illinois is supposed to happen only in limited situations and only for safety reasons. State education officials, however, 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.
ProPublica Illinois reporter Jodi S. Cohen, Jennifer Smith Richards of the Tribune and ProPublica Illinois reporting fellow Lakeidra Chavis conducted an investigation into its use, examining tens of thousands of school incident reports and creating the first-ever database that included 35,000 incidents. The findings proved shocking. Children were sent to isolation after refusing to do classwork or throwing Legos. School employees used isolated timeout 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.
The series prompted Illinois’ governor and state education officials to commit to sweeping change, beginning with emergency restrictions. The state board of education banned locked seclusion immediately and put new restrictions on schools’ use of physical restraint. Illinois is now monitoring restraint and timeout, with schools required to notify state officials within 48 hours of using the measures. The state 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.
See a list of all finalists for the National Awards for Education Reporting here.