When Kari Knudtson’s 10-year-old fourth grader at Mill Creek Elementary School in Independence became wildly disruptive in school last month, he was taken from his classroom and put in the school’s isolation room.
Knudtson said her son has had trouble controlling his behavior in the past and ended up in time out, suspension or a “safe seat,” or the “buddy room,” alone with a school staff member until he could calm down. But an isolation room? That she wasn’t familiar with.
“I didn’t know that isolation rooms even existed until I learned that my son had been in one,” Knudtson said. She found out about the incident with her son on Dec. 22, the last day of classes before winter break, and her son later told her it wasn’t his first time in isolation.
Schools have dealt with students acting out in class since time immemorial. Over the years, how teachers resolved potentially dangerous disruptions — a child throwing objects, for example — has changed from a ruler to the knuckles, to in-school suspension, to expelling a student altogether.
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But isolation, experts say, should not be punitive.
Isolation has been a common tool used by schools to de-escalate dangerously out-of-control students who could hurt themselves or someone else. It has also been controversial.
In recent years, parents in Texas and Washington have accused schools of putting children in isolation rooms and isolation boxes for hours as punishment. But new research has touched off a national movement away from the use of isolation under any circumstances, because some say it doesn’t really work.
In the Independence School District, some staff are learning other strategies for stopping students before they lose control, including staying calm themselves and recognizing cues that a situation is escalating.
“We employ numerous strategies in behavior management to keep students and staff safe,” said Beth Savidge, assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and professional development.
The district also has 15 isolation rooms in its schools.
The isolation room at Mill Creek “is an empty room with a door that opens into the room,” said Janet Richards, assistant superintendent of elementary education in Independence. It had previously been used as a conference room, copy room and a small instructional room.
“A student cannot be locked in,” Richards said, adding that a student “would be guided to this room if displaying dangerous behavior.”
Richards said the principal or other trained staff member should be with the student unless the student was physically harming that staff member. At that point, the staff member could leave the room and monitor the student through a window in the door.
This is the first year Mill Creek has had an isolation room.
“These spaces are utilized at schools where the need has arisen and are similar to spaces used in other districts,” said Jana Corrie, district spokeswoman. “It’s a place to allow students to calm down and get away from whatever may be upsetting them so they can ideally return to learning.”
District officials declined to allow The Star to view the isolation room or talk with the school principal, Lindsey Miller, who is in her first year leading the school.
A group of Mill Creek parents said they have known about the room for some time. “We want those gone,” said Joni Gentry, who has a fifth-grader at the school.
She and other parents said they have talked with school and district officials about their concerns but have not been satisfied with the responses. “We didn’t need them in the past, why do we need them now?” Gentry said.
On Tuesday evening, Gentry and other parents packed into the living room of another parent’s home for a meeting about the isolation room. Several parents admitted their children have behavior issues that they have been working on with the school’s help. And one said isolation rooms have helped her son, who does not attend Mill Creek but is a student in the Independence district.
But some parents complained that the Mill Creek isolation room, which has a brick wall and exposed, uncovered electrical sockets, is unsafe.
They plan to walk door to door in the community around Mill Creek, at 2601 N. Liberty St., this weekend to let other parents know about the room and to collect signatures in support of getting rid of it and making leadership changes at the school.
“Parents are furious that the school has an isolation room, and most parents are not even aware that it exists,” said Sara Baker, whose 6-year-old attends Mill Creek. “We just don’t feel like this is a proper tool for this school.”
Baker, who works with disabled adults at a company in Kansas, said her son has never been in the isolation room but has seen classmates taken there. He told her one of his friends was put in isolation while school staff pulled on the outside door handle to keep the screaming, pleading child confined inside the room.
“He told me, ‘That’s where the bad kids go,’ ” Baker said. “I know that my child is not always on his best game. I’m concerned that if he has a bad day, will he end up in this room?”
In a memo to parents Tuesday, district officials denied the isolation room at Mill Creek has ever been used to discipline a child. Use of the room “is rare,” said Corrie. But the district says such space is sometimes necessary when students become uncontrollable or violent.
Independence is not the only area district that uses isolation rooms and other state-sanctioned seclusion and restraint methods to manage student behavior. But state officials said use of isolation rooms is a local district decision and policy, and the state does not collect data on which districts use them or how.
A school district can also prohibit the use of seclusion, isolation or restraint.
The Independence district policy that provides schools with guidance on seclusion, isolation and restraint says the purpose is to promote safety and prevent harm to all students, school personnel and visitors; to treat all students with dignity and respect; and promote retention of teachers and other personnel by addressing student behavior in an appropriate and safe manner.
The policy also says that isolation methods may only be used for a maximum of 40 minutes, “after de-escalation procedures have failed” or “in an emergency,” or if it is called for in a student’s individualized education program worked out with parents ahead of time. The policy says the isolation space “must be free of objects that could cause harm. Isolation shall never be used as a form of punishment.”
“When you read their policy you think, there probably are some children who need to use rooms like this, to help students with special needs calm down when they lose control,” Baker said. “But I do feel like they are misusing the room. We were told it has only been used on six students, but to our knowledge it is not rare and that right before the Christmas break it was being used almost daily.”
The district disputes that claim.
This is not the first time the use of isolation rooms in an elementary school has come under fire. In 2012, a Washington state public elementary school made headlines when a second-grader was barricaded in a small padded closet the district called an isolation room but that to some parents appeared similar to a solitary confinement box.
And last year, North Texas schools came under fire for the use of seclusion and isolation rooms — the smallest of which was 56 square feet, or about the size of a parking space.
Experts on the subject at Truman Medical Center said many schools across the country and some locally are phasing out the use of isolation rooms. That’s because “they have seen the impact they have on individuals, and they are not effective,” said Molly Ticknor, a licensed professional counselor who works at the medical center with a program called Trauma Sensitive Schools.
“Based on current research related to Trauma Sensitive Schools, brain research ... and all the leading experts, the main goal is to create an environment that promotes safety and well-being,” said Sharon Freese, associate administrator for behavioral health at Truman. She said any type of isolation regardless of where it is would be contrary to promoting “a sense of safety for the person and can have long-term negative impact on a person’s overall wellness.”
Instead, Trauma Sensitive Schools employs strategies to prevent a student from acting out in the first place.
The Independence district has been involved with this program for about two years. “But becoming a trauma-sensitive school or trauma-informed organization is a long process, a journey,” Ticknor said.
Independence parents plan to take their concerns about the isolation room at Mill Creek to the school board at its next meeting, on Tuesday.