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Investigation: There's A Ban On Isolated Timeouts In Illinois Schools


A practice in Illinois schools went something like this - misbehaving kids, some as young as 5, were disciplined by locking them in a small seclusion room, sometimes for hours, alone. An investigation revealed that happened 20,000 times in less than two years. We know the details because of a report from the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois. The governor has now called on the seclusion to stop. Jennifer Smith Richards of the Tribune joins us now. Good morning.


INSKEEP: I would like to think, I guess, that this is some practice from some earlier century, left over from earlier times. How did this begin?

SMITH RICHARDS: So this is something that has been in public schools for quite a long time. It's a practice that moved from institutions, residential facilities, you know, clinical settings and into the public schools as children with higher needs, with special needs began being educated in public schools.

INSKEEP: Oh. So are those the kids who tended to be the target of this kind of solitary confinement?

SMITH RICHARDS: Right. We're talking about largely students with disabilities, very often students who have emotional and behavioral disabilities, sometimes students with autism. Those are the students who most often we were seeing were spending time in seclusion rooms here.

INSKEEP: OK. I just used the phrase solitary confinement, which is something we associate with prison or with torture. Is that an accurate phrase for what was going on here?

SMITH RICHARDS: What Illinois calls it is isolated time-out. It is really seclusion. And what we're talking about are small spaces that a lot of parents have described as like cells or like jail or like a closet - very, very small spaces that are reminiscent for many people of a more punitive-type situation.

INSKEEP: And that raises another question for me because solitary confinement has been found to be mentally devastating. It can itself be a form of torture. How were these already troubled kids affected by being left alone in a room for some period of time?

SMITH RICHARDS: Right. So the children who we spoke with and who we saw in, you know, volumes and volumes of records experienced a lot of distress. They got into the rooms sometimes, you know, for very minor infractions. And once they were inside, they really had difficult reactions, really negative reactions. Some of them, you know, threw their bodies against the walls. Some of them tried to pry the door open and, you know, bloodied their fingers, you know, became bruised, banged their head against the wall, screamed for their parents, really, you know, cried out in distress.

And we've since - you know, since we published the story - heard from adults who recalled being secluded as children, and they still have lasting trauma today. We had people say things like I'm coming undone reading the story. I'm having nightmares. So, you know, speaking with adults now who have experienced this as children has been really, really eye-opening for the lasting effect of seclusion for some people.

INSKEEP: Has anybody pushed back and said, no, wait a minute, we need this disciplinary technique?

SMITH RICHARDS: Yes. So there are schools who say we really need to have this tool to be able to serve the children that we serve. We need to be able to have a safe space for children when they become violent. And this is one of many tools that we use.

INSKEEP: But the governor said this has got to stop.

SMITH RICHARDS: Right. So there has been an emergency ban on locked, isolated seclusion in the state. And right now, we're sort of waiting to see how schools accept that and how this plays out as we go forward.

INSKEEP: Ms. Smith Richards, thanks for your reporting.

SMITH RICHARDS: Thanks so much.

INSKEEP: Jennifer Smith Richards of the Chicago Tribune. She joined us from member station WBEZ. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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