The use of "seclusion rooms" for unruly students has gotten attention at the state level recently, but the practice is seldom, if ever, utilized in Washington County.
"We just have never gotten in the practice of separating kids that way," said Andrew Brooks, special education coordinator for the Warren Local school district.
The Ohio Board of Education last month approved the state's first policy on how educators seclude and physically restrain students in schools, and it will take effect in the 2013-2014 school year. The effort was aimed at ensuring those tactics are used as a last resort to prevent students from harming themselves or someone else.
An investigation by The Columbus Dispatch, in collaboration with NPR and Ohio public-radio stations found that small, cell-like seclusion rooms were meant to be calming but were sometimes misused by teachers to punish children, even for minor infractions. The investigation also found the Department of Education didn't know which districts have such rooms.
The state reviewed Columbus City Schools' use of restraint and seclusion in response to a complaint from a group called Disability Rights Ohio, filed with the Ohio Department of Education in November. Released earlier this month, the review showed 371 children in that district were held down, physically removed from a class or put in closet-like rooms to calm down about 1,800 times
Brooks is a crisis, prevention and intervention trainer certified by Wisconsin-based Crisis Prevention Institute Inc. He said there might be a time and place for seclusion, but he focuses on other avenues, including sending students to the principal's office before an incident gets out of hand and using verbal and non-verbal "de-escalating strategies." If a student does pose a danger, Brooks said his training calls for getting others away from the individual.
The Ohio Department of Education's draft policy about the use of seclusion rooms includes the following guidelines:
A room or area used for seclusion must provide for adequate space, lighting, ventilation, clear visibility and the safety of the student; and not be locked.
Seclusion shall not be used for the convenience of staff, as a form of discipline/punishment, as a substitute for inadequate staffing or as a means to coerce, retaliate or in a manner that endangers a student.
If a school district does use seclusion, staff must be appropriately trained to protect the care, welfare, dignity and safety of the student; continue to observe the student; and complete all required reports and document their observation of the student.
"With CPI, you actually remove the rest of the class and you actually leave the unruly student in place until you can remove them," he said.
Occasionally, the use of a physical hold might be required to prevent a student from harming herself or someone else, Brooks said.
"They ... are safe. They're effective. They're designed not to cause physiological damage of the student," he said.
CPI recommends only using the holds as a last resort and reporting their use to parents.
The last school in Washington County to have a designated seclusion room was Victory Place, the alternative school run by the Ohio Valley Educational Service Center in the former Fairview school building on Harmar Hill in Marietta. Ohio Valley ESC Superintendent Chris Keylor said their use was discontinued last year after a review of their effectiveness and a determination to move in a different direction.
"Our numbers of students have dwindled dramatically," he said. "It was just a decision I wanted to make."
Keylor said the seclusion room was a former office in the school that was also open to students with behavioral issues who felt they needed some time to cool off.
"Students could choose to walk there on their own and go in and just relax in case they were feeling like they were getting ready to have an outburst," he said.
Neither Belpre nor Marietta City Schools have designated seclusion rooms, but both superintendents said there could be a location established if a student's individual educational plan called for it. That would have to be approved by the child's parents.
Belpre Superintendent Tony Dunn said such a room would be equipped in compliance with state policy, which requires the rooms to be properly lit and ventilated and have adequate space. The rooms are not to be locked, and the student must be observed at all times.
Marietta Superintendent Harry Fleming said a room could be utilized for a student who felt he or she needed to "cool off," although they might also be directed there by a teacher. However, he said he does not consider such a room a "seclusion room." Fleming noted the use of such a room would have to be approved by parents as part of the student's IEP.
Wolf Creek Local Schools Superintendent Bob Caldwell said that district researched seclusion rooms about 10 years ago and decided against using them.
"We came to the conclusion here that it just wasn't a productive means of discipline for what we're interested in doing," he said.
Caldwell said a student might very well be moved to a different location in the classroom, but he doesn't believe isolating them in another room is an effective tactic.
Frontier Local Schools Superintendent Bruce Kidder said that while students might be separated after a fight, the district does not employ seclusion rooms.
Fort Frye Local Schools curriculum and special education director Noreen Mullens said that district also feels seclusion rooms are "not necessarily the best practice."
Katie Keating, director of education for Ewing School, which primarily serves students with developmental disabilities, said seclusion rooms have not been used there in "years and years and years."
"We moved toward more of a gentle teaching approach and more of an inclusive approach," she said. "Our kids have to have a real high level of supervision, and we would never be able to leave them alone."
A copy of the ODE draft policy can be viewed online at www.ode.state.oh.us. It requires schools to notify parents within 24 hours of an incident, after some parents complained schools hadn't informed them of instances when their children were put in seclusion rooms.
The Associated Press contributed.