Before 2012, many of us had never heard of a "Scream Room" but the controversy in Middletown, propelled by allegations that a Farm Hill Elementary School student was put in a small room used to discipline children for misbehaving, put a local spotlight on an issue talked-about nationwide. By law, the use of seclusion in schools is supposed to be a "last resort" technique, used only when a child poses a threat to himself or others. When given a close look, the practice is complex and, sometimes, subjective. What is the definition of threat? Is the use of seclusion, as a way to calm a child down in a safe environment, more appropriate at special schools than public institutions? There is a new push for developing a better framework.
"What the research tells us is that there's no evidence to support the conclusion that restraint and seclusion of children is an effective intervention to change or manage their behavior," says the state's Child Advocate Sarah Eagan, whose office recently presented a forum, with the Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, called "Prevention of Restraint and Seclusion in CT's Schools: Putting Principles Into Practice", attended by parents, doctors and politicians. "Placing a child, particularly a child with a developmental disability…into a room that he can't come out of can be traumatizing." A just-released report of the 2012-13 school year by the State Department of Education shows 33,000 instances of restraint or seclusion, most often involving kids with autism, sometimes pre-schoolers and kindergarteners. "Where we want to start is a drastic reduction in the numbers," says Eagan.
"We need help…we need people who understand the multiple disabilities," says Richard Espinosa, who attended the forum, and claims his son, Benjamin, was manually placed in a "time-out room" at the New Britain Transition Center, a special education program. "Benjamin has over 15 surgeries from his hip down and he's very sensitive with his joints, so the idea of having an adult physically control him is scary." The 12-year-old has cerebral palsy, eye deficiencies and behavior problems. Espinosa was told his son waved his crutch at teachers but wonders if they truly exhausted all avenues of resolution. He has taken his child out of school. Dr. E. Ann Carabillo, the director of Pupil Services for the New Britain Board of Education, would not address Espinosa's accusations directly due to confidentiality, but says: "We approach each child and family individually. We work together to come up with a mutually agreeable solution."
"Lots of people are trying their best to work with kids who have complex needs," says Eagan, who believes legal reform is necessary to tighten guidelines and reduce instances of restraint and seclusion. "Our goal is not to put a black hat on schools but to say…'we're in this together…to bring the best expertise we have to…make our schools richly resourced to work with kids and families so that everybody's achieving in a safe way.'"
Next Monday, this special series continues in the Courant and on Fox CT. Hear from parents and experts who believe seclusion rooms can be effective, when used properly.
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