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Article of Interest - Restraint & Seclusion

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FL Parent Says School Misuses its Timeout Room
Abhi Raghunathan, St. Petersburg Times, October 13, 2005
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The punishment is considered so harsh the state urges it be used only as a last resort. It's called "secured seclusion" and allows teachers to confine children, many of whom suffer from severe emotional problems, in tiny, sealed rooms.

Just one school in Hernando County currently uses a timeout room for isolating troubled kids. The small space at Deltona Elementary can be shut with an electromagnetic lock.

The room is now at the center of a state inquiry into the school's exceptional student education program, which provides for the instruction of kids with learning disabilities.

The inquiry was prompted by the complaints of Christine Trueman, 32, who says she has pleaded with instructors at Deltona for at least five years not to put her son, now 9, in the timeout room. She told them he is autistic and suffers seizures. Last month, Trueman said, her son once banged his head on the walls of the timeout room for 28 minutes.

But, Trueman says, the instructors keep locking him in the room. She says they do it without her consent, which state guidelines require. And she says they do it for minor infractions, like when he doesn't do his math work.

In emergency incident reports, school officials wrote that Trueman's son didn't follow instructions and pushed chairs and tables. They also wrote that he threw other objects around the room and refused to do his work, sometimes ripping up papers.

When she has complained to school and district officials, Trueman says, they have told her teachers can use the timeout room without her consent. So she recently filed a formal complaint with the state Department of Education, which has begun the inquiry. State education officials said they normally open inquiries into complaints that cannot be resolved right away.

"With my son's medical condition, he's not supposed to be in there," Trueman said. "But he's always in there."

In addition to looking into Deltona's timeout room, state education officials are examining whether the district is following an individual education plan for Trueman's son and if he is getting other assistance for his medical issues, such as going to the bathroom.

While the state allows districts to establish procedures on how to use timeout rooms, it issued a set of guidelines to oversee the practice in a 1992 technical assistance paper. A Department of Education spokeswoman said those guidelines remain in effect.

The guidelines call for secured seclusion to be used only when other measures to discipline a child have failed. The guidelines also call for parental consent, and say the practice should be used only in drastic cases, such as "to prevent acute self-mutilative behavior" or "in an emergency when student shows evidence that he or she may injure others."

"Parental notification is essential," the guidelines say. "Before secured seclusion can be used with a student, the school should have on file a permission slip signed and dated by the parent/guardian; this should be updated annually."

Liz Weber, the district's director of exceptional student education, said she could not comment because there is an open inquiry into Trueman's complaints and she did not want to breach student confidentiality.

Deltona principal Beverly Chapin also said she could not comment, but stood by the school's teachers. Deltona is one of the district's "center schools" for ESE, a designation that signifies it has the resources and staff to deal with learning-disabled kids. About 30 percent of the school's 1,033 students are classified as ESE.

"We just have an excellent ESE program. I really do believe that," Chapin said. "We do follow the district's safety procedures."

Weber said the timeout room at Deltona meets all state construction requirements, which specify the room be at least 40 square feet and have a window so instructors can observe the kids they put inside. State rules also require the electromagnetic locks on timeout rooms to engage only when an instructor stands at the door and pushes a button or other device.

The construction rules force instructors to make sure the kids don't hurt themselves while isolated.

But the behavioral problems that force teachers to lock some troubled children in sealed rooms also make the punishment especially hard on kids like Trueman's son.

Her son, whom the Times is not naming because he is a minor, often comes home with soiled clothes. Even though he's in the fourth grade, he is still academically at a second-grade level, Trueman said.

The boy also suffers from autism, a neurological disability that impairs social interaction and communication skills, according to the Autism Society of America. He has other physical problems as well: Trueman has given school officials notes from her son's doctor, who asked them to monitor her son's heart rate during times of stress.

"Also, this patient has a seizure disorder. Please do not allow him to bang his head on a wall," Dr. Russell T. Bain wrote in a Sept. 27 note.

Timeout rooms can help emotionally troubled kids who are clamoring for attention, for example, by giving them a quiet sanctuary. Some school districts say the rooms can provide a valuable way for teachers to control classrooms.

Pasco schools have 13 secured seclusion rooms. Scott Larson, an exceptional student education supervisor in Pasco County, said the rooms allow children to take a break so they can return to learning with their classmates.

"They have a safe place," he said. "Sometimes when they have time to think about what they're doing ... kids can get quiet."

In recent years, however, many schools have abandoned the practice, believing it does little to change a student's behavior or teach other lessons. Lise Fox, a University of South Florida professor in the department of child and family studies, said research has produced far better alternatives.

Fox said schools now try to identify the factors in a curriculum or school environment that cause emotionally troubled students to misbehave. Then, she said, schools change those factors so kids can behave and participate in class rather than being confined in isolation.

"You should try to understand (why) a child is behaving in such a manner, and figure out a plan," Fox said.

But Trueman says Deltona officials have failed to do that. Instead of making changes to her son's curriculum, she said, district officials are resorting to the timeout room, which she says should never be used because she has refused to give her consent for him to be put in such a room.

Trueman has asked, for example, for her son to learn on a computer rather than filling out handouts. She said teachers just don't respond to such requests.

Trueman has complained about her son's treatment before, and gotten results. After the U.S. Office of Civil Rights began investigating her claim that her son was missing too many classes because of school bus issues, district officials offered to pay for 120 hours of instruction at Sylvan Learning Center. His bus was getting him to Deltona too late and making him go home too early.

School officials also resolved other complaints about her son's education before the end of the federal investigation in January 2005.

Trueman, who lives in Spring Hill, knows how difficult it is for teachers to educate kids with severe emotional problems.

"I do feel bad for the teachers," Trueman said. "It is a tough job, and I think the county needs to start spending the money for these kids."

But she's tired of watching her son regress academically, of watching him come home with bruises, or soiled clothes, or little new knowledge, and of knowing he spends a chunk of many school days locked in the secured seclusion room.

"It's been the same problems for years," she said. "They keep giving me the runaround."

     

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