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 Article of Interest - Discipline

Are Time-Out Rooms Inhumane?

SPEAK OUT: 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 grade schools.

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 said.

"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 such episodes.

Some special-education advocates said a change in state policy is overdue.

"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 profession.

"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 Minneapolis.

"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 or (651) 228-5432.


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