The Troubleshooters reveal how Connecticut schools are using seclusion tens of thousands of times in one school year, and why opponents say those numbers are alarming.
“[They] used to lock me up in that room all the time and I used to jump on there,” recalled nine-year-old Robert Eldred.
Robert’s experience with seclusion, or “scream,” rooms started when he was a kindergartner. His parents said Robert was forced into the rooms nearly every day.
Seclusion rooms come in many shapes and sizes. Some have windows or padding. Typically, children are placed in the rooms alone and are not allowed to leave until an adult allows them to do so. Often, the rooms are small in size.
"They'll shut the door on him and he'll go and hit his head on the wall sometimes, he'll kick the walls, he'll come home with bloody toes because he'll take off his shoes and kick the wall,” described Robert’s father, Michael Sexton.
Robert is diagnosed with severe epilepsy, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), ADHD, OCD, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. His father said all of those conditions worsened when staff at Mill Road School in North Haven allegedly forced Robert into seclusion rooms when his behavior got out of hand.
"They basically look like jails I say. An enclosed jail cell with nothing in there just concrete walls. It was traumatizing for him,” said Michael.
"I felt sad,” added Robert.
Numbers from the State Department of Education show it's happening much more than experts and advocates thought. James McGaughey is the head of the Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities.
"That's just a huge number. So it ought to be high on everybody's agenda to deal with it,” said McGaughey.
Records show in the 2011-2012 school year, Connecticut children were put in isolation rooms more than 23,000 times.
“It's happening in almost every school district,” said Dr. Melissa Olive, an autism expert and founder of Applied Behavioral Strategies.
That number includes both emergency seclusions, and seclusions in which staff are following an individualized educational program signed off on by parents for their kids with special needs, known as an IEP. But state investigations reveal that at Farm Hill School in Middletown, where a scream room controversy erupted last year, parents of only four of the fifteen children put in scream rooms agreed to the technique, and investigators said “Children who were secluded were both special education and regular education students."
"It's been our experience that parents are often not notified. Even parents who have a fair level of understanding of the education planning report to us that at times they've agreed to things they didn't realize really gave people permission to put their child into seclusion, into a room and close the door and not let them out no matter what,” said McGaughey.
Middletown Public Schools said they've retrained staff and tightened their rules on using and documenting seclusion , though they do still use the rooms.
Robert's parents told us school employees said seclusion rooms were in Robert's education plan, but his mom and dad never understood what they were until he came home with horror stories.
Dr. Melissa Olive is an advocate for autistic children and their families. She said her clients who have experienced seclusion have long-term trauma. Connecticut law is specific on how scream rooms should be used, but like the state officials we spoke with, Dr. Olive believe the number of seclusions is shocking. She said in her experience, schools don't always follow the letter of the law.
“I find it hard to believe that a three-, four-, [or] five-year-old can create imminent harm. So I feel like if younger children are being put in these situations that's all cause for alarm,” said Dr. Olive.
Jane Stango of Oakville doesn't necessarily agree.
"There's times when he actually needs to be in seclusion,” said Jane of her son Christopher.
Christopher graduated from River Street School, run by Capitol Region Education Council (CREC). Jane told us scream rooms were safe rooms for Christopher.
"What's it like watching him in the room?" asked our Troubleshooter.
"Well sometimes it's upsetting. You can't help but feel like your son is in a cage. But you know he's in the safest place he can be because if he's not there he can really hurt himself and that you don't want to happen,” explained Jane.
CREC reported about 2,500 seclusions in the 2011 - 2012 school year. The majority happened at River Street School, which CREC officials said serves students with the most challenging needs. CREC showed us two of their seclusion rooms, which included peepholes for staff to keep an eye on students.
“Is it a last resort?” asked our Troubleshooter.
"Absolutely, absolutely,” said CREC’s Director of Student Services, Deborah Richards.
"If we have a child that we are going to write seclusion into their program, parents will see what that room looks like. We'll talk about the precautions that we use, we'll talk about how students are supported,” said Richards, “We take very specific data on what happened before the event, what happened during the event, how we reached closure after the event, what we're going to do to prevent events happening in the future. We analyze that data, we graph that data, we share it with the clinical team, we share it with families."
CREC invites parents to watch their children during seclusion through small windows. Jane recalled that watching Christopher was hard.
"I cried. I cried. I cried because he was there, and then I cried because I felt bad because his behavior prompted him to be there,” she said.
Skeptics argue there is no evidence seclusion is effective, and they worry the rooms may do more harm than good.
"Not a good strategy. Not only does it have human rights implications, there's always a possibility of somebody being injured in the process of putting them into restraint or seclusion and there's also a psychological trauma that accompanies that,” said McGaughey.
Robert's parents said he's flourishing at his new school. It also has scream rooms, but Michael described the rooms as being padded, having video cameras, and being used sparingly. He added that the school tells the family each and every time Robert is placed in one.
"I think they should be banned out of Connecticut,” said Michael.
Robert’s former school is run by Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES). Officials there sent us this statement:
“Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES) mission is to empower our students, member districts and other clients to meet educational and life challenges in the changing global environment by providing collaborative, customized, cost effective solutions to meet identified needs of our educational community.
ACES practice is guided by our beliefs, namely:
ACES programs are designed with an emphasis on using positive reinforcement to teach and strengthen positive student behavior so that our students can successfully navigate at home, at school and in the community. Our programs follow the state guidelines, and are therapeutic environments that encourage and support student success.
ACES schools have wrap-around teams that include nurses, social workers, school psychologists, guidance counselors, behavioral staff, teachers and administrative staff.
ACES staff receives ongoing training in the areas of safety, and therapeutic interventions. ACES employs Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) to design positive reinforcement intervention programs.
ACES follows State guidelines regarding restraint and seclusion to ensure safety for all students and staff.
ACES is the Regional Educational Service Center for the twenty-five school districts in south central Connecticut. ACES exists to improve public education through high quality, cost effective programs and services. We meet the educational needs of our member districts by acting as both a local education agency (LEA) and as a regional educational services center (RESC). As a Local Education Agency, ACES operates schools designed to meet the specific needs of the region. ACES currently has eight schools and serves 2,200 students. For additional information on ACES, go to www.aces.org.”
In the State's report for 2011- 2012, the school with the most seclusions was High Road School of Wallingford, an approved private special education program, with 4,290 seclusions. Next up was CREC, with 2,518. As officials told us, those high numbers come from its specialized education program. Among public school districts, East Hartford has the highest number of seclusions with over 800.
To look up the use of seclusion rooms in schools across the state, click here to find an interactive map.