Are Time-Out Rooms
Plan would limit schools' use of 'time-out' rooms
by John Welsh, The Pioneer
Press, October 21, 2002
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After hearing stories of children
banging their heads against the walls of locked rooms or
students spending hours alone in a school's "blue room'' or
"white room,'' Minnesota officials are considering clamping
down on school districts' use of time-out rooms.
Special-education rules proposed by the state education
department would ban locked time-out rooms and limit unlocked
time-out interventions to 15 minutes an episode.
But special-education teachers who oppose some changes say
they need the locked rooms and greater flexibility with other
time-outs to keep staff and students safe.
The rules, which could take effect next year after a public
comment period, cover how schools intervene with misbehaving
special-education students and are among the most important
changes in that area in more than a decade, advocates said.
While the proposed rules cover only students in special
education — about 12 percent of enrollment in public schools —
state officials say school districts won't want two sets of
standards, so the rules could have an impact on all students.
Advocates especially hail the plan to eliminate locked
time-out rooms. But special-education administrators and
teachers say the ban could have unintended consequences,
including more students being sent to residential treatment
facilities because the schools can't handle them, according to
Minnesota Administrators for Special Education President Lorie
Schulstad-Werk. "We've heard from some of our members that we
may not be able to accommodate all students in the least
restrictive environment without this option,'' she said.
Locked time-out rooms have been scathingly criticized by
parents and others.
"It's inhumane,'' said Sharon Nygren of Minneapolis. She said
her grade-school son was put in a locked time-out room. "We
don't allow society to treat the elderly that way, or even
animals. I couldn't believe our schools did anything like that
to our children.''
Nygren has taken Minneapolis Public Schools to federal court
over the treatment of her son. She lost the case at the
district court level but is now appealing. District officials,
citing the ongoing litigation, declined to respond to Nygren's
comments but said they do not have locked time-out rooms in
Her son, who has brain damage resulting from a bout with
encephalitis and a stroke as a toddler, was placed in a locked
room for such infractions as tapping his pencil on his desk
and for not completing his homework, Nygren said. While
inside, he repeatedly banged his head against the wall, and
once he wrapped a sleeve of his shirt around his neck, she
"It was very traumatic,'' she said. "I don't see how it could
possibly teach a child anything.''
Top officials at the state Department of Children, Families
and Learning agree.
"The concept of locking kids up is one that is hard to take in
school,'' said Thomas Lombard, assistant commissioner. "We
don't see school as a jail.''
Current rules set no time limit for the use of unlocked,
time-out seclusion rooms. Agency officials seek a 15-minute
time limit, citing research showing that time-out episodes can
be counterproductive if they are too long.
In recent years, the department has ruled in favor of parents
in several special-education complaint cases involving the use
of time-out rooms.
Districts that use them often employ euphemisms to describe
them: Intermediate District 917 has the "white room,'' a
school in St. Paul has its "blue room,'' and in the Stillwater
district an elementary school had the "stop-and-think room.''
In the cases involving St. Paul and Intermediate District 917,
which provides special education and other services in Dakota
County, the districts sometimes placed students in time-out
rooms for hours, according to state records.
"Time out can be a good thing, and it is needed in some
cases,'' Lombard said. "The problem comes with overrelying on
it without examining the effects.''
The proposed rules emphasize positive behavior supports, as
opposed to approaches seen as more punitive.
"The major thrust is to teach appropriate behavior,'' Lombard
said. "In general terms, punishment doesn't change behavior.''
The proposals also call for a meeting of student, parents and
staff members when a police liaison officer is called to
intervene with the student. The meeting would review the
student's individual education plan to address how to avoid
Some special-education advocates said a change in state policy
"I'm so pleased. We are so much further ahead than we were
before,'' said attorney Amy Goetz, who has represented parents
in special-education disputes with districts. "We were
operating in substandard conditions.''
But groups representing special-education educators are
expected to challenge the proposals. Teachers complain that
the new rules would be on top of existing federal requirements
and would worsen paperwork woes. Teacher safety in dealing
with students is another concern. Many special-education
teachers cite such safety concerns as a reason for leaving the
"We have a critical need to balance safety and security for
all students and staff with appropriate behavior intervention
procedures,'' Schulstad-Werk said.
Though debate about the behavior rules is useful, increased
training of special-education staff is critically needed, said
Don Allen, assistant director for special education in
"I would hope that would be a part of the discussion,'' Allen
said. "It's a tough profession.''
John Welsh covers education. He can
be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or (651)