Seclusion Process in Public Schools

ThinkProgress just posted an article on the process of seclusion rooms in public schools, specifically in Ohio and Florida. Seclusion rooms are often, as the article points out, an old office or closet (so, windowless). They’re used a a portion of the disciplinary process, particularly for violent children because they can’t do much in the seclusion room to hurt others or themselves*.

As the article also points out, not much training goes into the proper use of seclusion rooms (assuming of course, that these rooms are a good line of disciplinary action at all, which I argue they aren’t and I’ll get to that) and there isn’t much regulation around the duration of time a child spends in seclusion or how often a child is sent to the room.

Why does this matter to me, a childless twenty-something?

Aside from the fact that it smells vaguely like torture-on-the-small-scale, and the fact that it’s (probably) abused in some classrooms, and the fact that it doesn’t deal with the issues that lead to this action but rather shuts them behind a door, and the fact that this practice further isolates the kids who undergo this disciplinary action, I also have a person investment in it.

I used to watch a boy (we’ll call him Joseph), who a southeastern school district designated as Special Needs. He had (has) Asperger’s Syndrome and, by middle school, was in a classroom full of Special Needs kids. A number of the kids in his class had serious behavioral problems and by Joseph’s accounts, he was bullied and threatened on a regular basis. He eventually started acting out and threatening kids back — sometimes in very serious ways. I remember him telling me he’d been suspended for kicking his teacher, for biting someone. When I watched him, he would tell me about the kids he hated at school and how he wished he could kill them. He started outlining specific plans for how he’d kill them and telling me the specific grievances.

All I could think about, at the time, was the Columbine killers.

I reassured Joseph and coached him not to act upon these fantasies. I asked him what he thought would happen if he acted on any of these fantasies (“I’d probably go to jail,” he said. He understood possible consequences on some level), what provoked specific hatreds. I asked him again and again to explain to me what he liked about these people — anything that he could find to like about them. I wanted to help him humanize these people even if he never actually liked them as people.

And that’s the thing about Joseph. For the most part, he didn’t struggle to come up with something he liked about these classmates. He liked most of these people, wanted to believe they wanted to be his friends. He wanted to them to like him. There were only a few of them he never swayed on (and for good reason, I suspect — one of these classmates, at the age of thirteen, was charged with raping a woman in her eighties).

But the point of this: seclusion rooms.

As Joseph acted out more, his teacher started sending him to the seclusion room more often. I asked him once to describe it to me: a windowless room, an old closet in this case, with padding on the walls. He said he’d yell and scream and kick things while he was in there. He claimed that he was kept in there for hours (though he never really developed a good sense of time as the rest of us keep it) and that most days he spent time in the seclusion room. I talked to his parents about this on a few occasions and they acknowledged, yes, they knew it happened. They were trying to get him out of the school district, trying to get him into a better situations. I think they, like I, could see the possibility of Joseph self-destructing. I think they, like I, were worried what would happen to him if he didn’t escape.

When Joseph talked to me about the seclusion process, he sounded sad. He recognized that this was the teacher’s way of singling him out. He recognize that this was the teacher’s way of dealing with one of the “problem” students the teacher either wasn’t properly trained to help or, at the very least, didn’t have the proper support from the school to help. He also recognized that, as he spent more time in the seclusion room, he was developing a reputation for being one of the “scary” kids in the class. He recognized this as something he didn’t want to be.

He also saw it as a source of power.

The sense of having power, for the first time ever in a school situation, might have made things worse for Joseph. When he realized that, finally, kids were scared of him, he started acting more like a bully. He’d had plenty of experience watching other people be bullies to pick up on the best techniques. Eventually, he started recapping the ways he’d been mean to other kids.

I was a college student by this point, and not trained to help him out of this situation, but still I tried. I created (true) narratives about the boy he’d been, tried to help him understand how much his actions would hurt if he did those things to me (he was deeply loyal to me — and even though I haven’t watched him in years, we still talk regularly) and that those feelings were similar to ones his classmates would feel. I stopped trying to bullshit him in the way that far too many of us bullshit kids and told him the truth about everything he asked — and a lot of things he didn’t — relevant to his behavior and my own experience with bullies and bullying. I didn’t paint a particularly pretty picture.

Toward the end of his time in that school district, Joseph made occasional comments about killing himself. Sure, a lot of teenagers express this desire and we should take those comments seriously. But because of his experience in school, I took them particularly seriously and addressed them directly with Joseph (and later, with his father). Here was another opportunity to be honest with Joseph — to allow a dialogue to develop about something none of us like to talk about, suicidal ideation — to let him know my experiences and what got me through, but also what I still struggled with and how I coped with that. I focused particularly on coping mechanisms.

And that’s probably what we should be teaching in schools — and tools we should be specifically focusing on with teachers (and in particular, new teachers). How to cope. How to cope with “problem” students. How to cope with students who seem to be slipping through the cracks. How to cope with the fact that teachers can’t save every student — students also have to want, on some level, to be saved. How to help students cope with bullying. How to help students cope with rough home lives or emotional issues that impede their school work or learning disabilities or any number of other things.

I say that though, with hesitation. I’ve never taught in public schools, nor do I have any desire to do so — I’m the product of public schools and the daughter of a person who dedicated a career to public schools and I understand far too well both the ways public schools are highly flawed and highly successful.

I am, however, an informal educator and I’ve worked with university students as well. In my informal-education life, the students who others warn me about are often my favorites — they’re often challenges and sometimes I secretly want to strangle them, but what most of these students want is someone who will listen to them, someone who will see them as more than a series of problems. There are, of course, students I just don’t like. To pretend otherwise would invalidate so much of what I hold dear to teaching and to writing. The ability to be honest, the ability to deal with others with some modicum of kindness, the ability to confront difficulty.

In my work with university students, I’m dealing with actual adults. Most of the time, we could communicate like adults — with mutual respect, without raised voices, with rational arguments. A couple of times, this wasn’t the case. I never felt threatened by a student though I did make sure to meet with a couple of special cases in very public places. Traditional university students are often just learning to deal with their problems on their own rather than with assistance from a counselor or parent. They’re learning to speak up for themselves and promote their ideas. They’re often re-forming identities.

So, it’s not entirely fair for me to say negative things about seclusion rooms since I’ve never experienced one first-hand and I could see potential benefits if used by trained professionals, and if explained to kids as a safe place to “calm down.” Instead, I’m reacting to the use of seclusion rooms as a quick-fix-disciplinary method particularly by untrained teachers. I’m reacting to the use of metal detectors and daily pat-downs at some schools and the culture of fear (“security”) this cultivates. I’m reacting to the fact these things do very little to teach our youth how to cope with any of the aforementioned things (or any number of other challenges they’ll face), to hand them tools that can be applied to their current life and to adult life. I’m reacting to the fact that I know too many adults (myself included) who don’t have a strong set of coping mechanisms.


*In 2004, a thirteen-year-old boy hung himself in a Georgia seclusion room.


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