Seclusion rooms in schools are bad idea

Michigan Protection & Advocacy Service, Inc. is the federally mandated protection and advocacy agency charged with providing advocacy services to people with disabilities in Michigan. MPAS is disappointed to learn that the Marquette Public Schools is spending tax dollars to build a “seclusion room” in a middle school (The Mining Journal, May 21).

Seclusion in schools is a dangerous and unregulated practice that puts children at risk of harm. We write in hopes of providing more information to the community about seclusion in school and to help reduce and eliminate its use.

According to the Michigan Department of Education, seclusion is “the confinement of a student in a room or other space from which the student is physically prevented from leaving and which provides for continuous adult observation of the student.” Voluntary “time out” as described in the article is not seclusion and does not require a locking seclusion room such as the one proposed in Marquette.)

The U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR), reported in 2009-10, that, although children with disabilities make up 12 percent of all students, they make up 58 percent of all children forced into seclusion and 75 percent of all children who are physically restrained.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote in 2012 that “the use of restraint and seclusion can have very serious consequences, including, most tragically, death. Furthermore, there continues to be no evidence that using restraint or seclusion is effective in reducing the occurrence of the problem behaviors that frequently precipitate the use of such techniques.” In fact, use of either seclusion or restraints in non-emergency situations poses significant physical and psychological danger to students according to a February 2014 report by the U.S. Senate. Consider the following story of seclusion from the 2009 National Disability Rights Network report, School is Not Supposed to Hurt: During January 2011, a child who had been repeatedly placed in a seclusion room was not allowed to leave the seclusion room to use the restroom. The child subsequently urinated on the floor. Upon his return to school the following day, the school secluded him again for having relieved himself in the room on the previous day. The final incident occurred on January 20, 2011; reportedly, the child had been in seclusion for approximately four consecutive hours, during which the child had been screaming and cursing for not being allowed out to use the bathroom. It is unclear what prompted staff to check on the child, either the child’s sudden silence or the arrival of the child’s guardian. However, when the seclusion room was unlocked, staff discovered that the child had attempted to hang himself.

Because of the risk of harm, seclusion is regulated in nearly every setting, except schools. Contrary to the information reported by The Mining Journal, there are no federal laws regulating the use of seclusion in schools. The only Michigan law regulating use of seclusion in schools is the state corporal punishment law, which allows school officials to use reasonable force “as necessary to maintain order and control in a school or school related setting or for the purpose of providing an environment conducive to safety and learning.” Courts have interpreted this standard to give school officials broad discretion to use force.

The State Board of Education adopted voluntary guidelines regarding thecuse of seclusion in December 2006. Although they describe seclusion as “a last resort emergency safety intervention” the guidelines are not binding on schools. Schools may choose to follow them or not.

Both Michigan and the federal government recognize that there are evidence-based alternatives to seclusion that support positive behavior in children. The State Board of Education writes:

[E]ach school district in Michigan implements a system of school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS). … PBIS is an example of an effective, research-based system that addresses challenging behaviors in a collaborative, comprehensive, research-validated, and humane manner.

The U.S. Senate reported in 2014 that: PBIS is an evidence-based, data-driven framework proven to reduce disciplinary incidents, increase a school’s sense of safety, and support improved academic outcomes for all students. More than 19,000 of the approximately 100,000 U.S. public schools are implementing PBIS and saving countless instructional hours otherwise lost to discipline.

Many teachers and school personnel do an outstanding job of educating students with behavioral challenges without resorting to seclusion. We urge Marquette to reconsider its decision and take advantage of evidence-based alternatives to help support children with behavior challenges to learn and thrive safely.

Editor’s note: Mark McWilliams is a lawyer and director of information, referral and education services at Michigan Protection & Advocacy Services, Inc.