A recent news segment on CTV National News, aired October 7, 2015, focused on the outrage expressed by parents of a British Columbia boy with Down Syndrome upon discovering that their son, Deacon, age 7, had been repeatedly been confined to a so-called “quiet room” – a small, windowless space designed for disruptive students. “I think it’s awful,” said father Kirk Graham. “It breaks my heart for my son.” He and his wife Jackie were so upset that they pulled their son out of school in protest. “This needs to stop,” Mr. Graham added. “Nobody should be put in a lockdown room.”
The Salmon Arm, BC, case is not an isolated instance. A British Columbia report, Stop Hurting Kids, commissioned by Inclusion BC and the Family Support Institute in November 2013, identified 200 examples of children being left alone in everything from windowless offices to padded rooms to a gym equipment closet. Roughly half of the examples involved “seclusion” for periods as long as 3 hours; about one-in-three of the examples involved imposing physical restraints. An estimated 72 per cent of parents reported that their child suffered “emotional trauma.” Most concerning of all, somewhere between half and three-quarters of the parents only learned about the “isolation” through someone outside of the school.
Many Canadian schools now have “time-out” rooms to accommodate students engaging in repeated inappropriate or disruptive classroom or playground behaviour. Those segregated school spaces go by a variety of names ranging from “time-out” to “quiet corner” to “isolation” depending upon the province and particular school district. Most, if not all, education authorities now have “guidelines” for the use of “designated time-out” rooms. In the Atlantic provinces, for example, a set of formal guidelines, developed first in 2002 in New Brunswick, have essentially sanctioned such “behaviour-modification” actions.
Intervening in the classroom to curb misbehaviour or ‘acting-out’ by calling a “time-out” is commonly accepted professional teaching practice. In most instances, it is the appropriate strategy, and Special Education research (ABA) tends to show that it can be effective in reducing problem behaviours, including those exhibited by students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and behavioural disorders. Faced with students demonstrating aggressive or potentially dangerous behaviours, teachers need to have a range of means to assist in settling students down in school.
Having recognized that practical classroom reality, the “time-out” strategy can lead to more intrusive and potentially damaging measures involving “restraint” and “seclusion.” The Canadian Council for Exceptional Children recognizes restraint and seclusion as “an emergency response, not a treatment.” The Ontario Association for Behaviour Analysis (ONTABA) recommends carefully planned, monitored and limited time-out sanctions and restraint and seclusion as “a last resort” in an “emergency situation.”
American professional organizations such as the APBA, faced with far more lawsuits, are far more explicit in setting limits. “The misuse and abuse of restraint and seclusion procedures with vulnerable people is intolerable,” according to the APBA (2009), ” an represents a clear violation of ethical principles and accepted professional practice.”
Over the past decade, “isolation rooms” have come to light as a direct result of some well-publicized and disturbing cases. In March of 2009, the parent of 8-year-old Dylan Gale went public over the confinement of her son in a the “storage closet” of a Windsor, NS, public school. A Nova Scotia Education Department survey found that 42 such unregulated rooms existed in provincial schools and that revelation led to the implementation of an August 2009 set of guidelines.
Even with policies in place, alleged abuses continue to happen across Canada. Last school year, a 9-year-old autistic boy attending Ottawa’s St. Jerome Catholic School was handcuffed by police officers on school premises and Toronto-area parent Karen Thorndyke launched a $16 million law suit against the Peel District School Board for confining her autistic son to an “isolation room.”
Schools are not intended to be prisons or young offender’s centres, so time-outs, restraints and seclusion tend to arouse very strong feelings. In Britain, vocal critics of “isolation rooms” campaign for their abolition because they tend to be applied against Special Education students who find themselves “frightened and alone” in such enclosed spaces. Since the 2006 report, “The Costs of Inclusion,” the issue has been hotly-debated. That report’s findings demonstrated that the real purpose of seclusion was to “remove the disruption” so that “teachers can get on with teaching.”
Seclusions have only short-term impact and only solve an immediate problem for a teacher attempting to cope with a class of 27 to 30 other students. A 2010 U.K. Bernardo’s report, “Not present and not correct,“ concluded that isolating a student “usually neither addressed the issues leading to discipline problems, nor provided any guidance that would help the young person learn to control themselves.”
Isolation of students does not really address the root causes and merely hides it away from sight. It also raises fundamental policy questions: What is the impact of restraint and seclusion on our most challenged and vulnerable children and youth? How can we support teachers confronting significant behavioural problems without entrenching such potentially damaging practices? Is it right to remove one child from the room so that others can learn? Is this chronic issue one of the unintended consequences of imposing “fully inclusive classrooms” on everyone?