“My son is very OCD, non-verbal autistic, understands everything you say,” says Jane Stango of Watertown, remembering how her son would bang his head against a faucet when he became extremely agitated at the River Street School in Windsor, a Capitol Region Education Council school for students with developmental disabilities. “Putting him in the ‘seclusion room’ there, which he was very comfortable with, allowed him to get rid of his OCD without hurting himself.” Stango believes “seclusion” can be effective for some children at specialized schools with highly trained professionals, but there is a new push to reduce use of this practice in schools, across the board.
“In all cases, it’s about ‘how do we prevent it.’ Nobody wants to seclude a child, nobody wants to restrain a child” says CREC’s Director of Student Services, Deborah Richards. “But when you have students who have such significant challenges, the question is: What interventions do we have to put into place to prevent that from happening?” Both “restraint” and “seclusion” are legal in Connecticut, as emergency responses when a student poses a risk to himself or others, or when “seclusion” is built into a parent-approved Individualized Education Plan. A recent state report shows the majority of children who experience “seclusions”, sometimes over an hour long, have autism, and related disorders. Many of these kids are young, in kindergarten or first grade. Parents, politicians and advocates expressed outrage and called for change at a recent forum in Hartford aimed at prevention of these techniques.
Watch Sarah’s interview with U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy.
“We always have someone either in the room processing with the student or someone watching the student every second they’re in some kind of isolation,” says Richards, explaining why CREC’s numbers, 3860 seclusions in the 2012-13 report, are high. She says they reflect precise, computerized tracking of students who could not succeed in their local classrooms. The overall numbers of restraint and seclusion, collected from about 250 schools, is “self-reported”. The accuracy of all data has been questioned by the state’s Child Advocate Sarah Eagan. “If it’s not as common at a public school, it’s not on everybody’s radar screen. So, I think you’ll see vast differences from school to school,” says Richards, noting that CREC’s psychologists and behavior analysts are highly trained for these extreme behavior interventions. “There are districts who clearly have that expertise but there are districts that don’t. ”
Stango was notified every time Chris, now 22 and living in a group home, was put in seclusion. She even witnessed his experience there and didn’t see a stark, scary image of a “scream room” but, rather, a padded space with a sensory wall. “Let’s face it, you have someone behind a door and it’s like they’re in a cage, but for him, it’s where he needed to be at that time,” she says. “It all depends on the school and the training. That’s it.”