The use of seclusion rooms, or scream rooms, is a controversial practice that occurs thousands of times each school year, and state leaders say the goal is to reduce the instances of seclusion by implementing training in districts where they're seeing numbers pop up.
According to a recent report by the Connecticut Department of Education, 1,596 students were placed in seclusion rooms a total of 17,789 times in the 2013/2014 school year. That's down by 247 instances of seclusion from the previous year.
"The numbers are certainly higher than we would like to see it,” said Charlene Russell-Tucker, chief operating officer of the Department of Education. "Are the laws being followed as written? Those are questions that we certainly will ask and continue to ask, and continue to provide the training so that there's no confusion about what should be happening in districts."
The numbers in the Department of Education’s latest report are being viewed as a warning sign to child advocates.
"What they're telling us is what's disturbing," said Sarah Eagan, Connecticut’s Child Advocate.
Just days after the Department of Education released the latest numbers, the Office of the Child Advocate put out a report calling for sweeping changes limiting the use of seclusion in schools.
”When emergency interventions, or I should say, so-called emergency interventions, are happening tens of thousands of times a year, and sometimes hundreds of times a year for one child, that's something we have to look at," said Eagan.
By state law, seclusion is only supposed to be used if it’s already been approved by parents as part of an individual educational plan, or IEP, or in the case of an emergency.
But the OCA report shows that seclusions are being used for behavior that doesn't warrant putting a kid behind a closed door.
The report cites one case where a child wouldn't greet a visitor, another where a student wouldn't do his work, and in another instance, a student kept saying, "I won" while playing a game, despite having lost. In all three cases, the children were placed in seclusion.
“It's damaging, scary, it's traumatizing. It can harm children's development by making them not trust caregivers, teachers, providers,” Eagan explained. “It can worsen the very behaviors that well-meaning providers and staff are trying to eliminate."
According to the Department of Education report, nearly half of all seclusions occur with children who are autistic. Parents of these children are divided over whether this practice should be used.
"I think that the room itself isn't harmful. I think the people using it and defining the rules are the ones that create the issue," said Debra Martinez, of Meriden, who has three boys.
Her 15-year-old son, Tino, is autistic. His youngest brother, Cody, has ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. For Cody in particular, a school day can turn on a dime.
"Cody can be aggressive and violent, not only at home but at school," said Debra Martinez.
When that happens, there are times when Cody is placed in a seclusion room, sometimes referred to as a scream room.
"At school when Cody is aggressive or unsafe, I expect them to remove him,” said Martinez. “I fully expect it not only for him, but for the other kids. And sometimes going into a room where there isn't anything that can harm him is the best thing."
It's become evident in recent years that there is little consensus among parents with regards to whether these rooms are a useful tool or a harmful experience.
“The truth is they do use it for non-emergencies," said a mother who asked only to be identified as Sue.
Her 18-year-old son is developmentally disabled. According to Sue, he has been placed in seclusion rooms hundreds of times over the last seven years, often without her knowledge.
”He would come home looking kind of catatonic, drained, he wouldn't even have life in him for two or three hours after he got out of school," said Sue.
It's not just the practice that has some concerned, it's the rooms themselves. Martinez believes these rooms, when used to de-escalate problem behavior, can work. But she's seen cell-like rooms that troubled her to the point where she told staff never to put her kids there.
“I sat in one of them and I started to sweat because it was so hot, because there's no ventilation,” said Martinez. “No. It's about how you use the room."
Where parents and advocates agree is that appropriate steps need to be taken before any behavior rises to the level of seclusion. It's something the OCA says some schools are doing extremely well, and that more training and education can help other schools reduce the incidents of seclusion.
"We do have answers, and we have to provide those answers to teachers, educators, administrators, school leaders, because every one of us wants the best for our kids," said Eagan.
While several states have banned the practice, Martinez believes when used properly, seclusion keeps teachers, staff, other children and her own son safe, as difficult as it may be to know it's happening.
“Do you think it makes a parent feel good to know that their kid is in a room by themselves? It doesn't,” said Martinez. “It breaks my heart that my son can't go to school and focus all day and just thrive like the other kids."
While the number of seclusions has remained steady, the instances of children being restrained are up. Child advocates say progress needs to be made so both numbers are significantly reduced.