Imagine the pain dad Bill Lichtenstein felt when he found his 5-year-old daughter locked in a basement broom closet, naked in a pool of pee. Not while accidentally playing at grandma’s house; not playing around over at her friend’s house. She was at school.
Not church school, not crazy cult school, not backwater spare-the-rod home-school, but school school. Public school. In Lexington, Mass. And this wasn’t her first time in the closet.
Lichtenstein writes about the growing dependency many public schools have on so-called “seclusion rooms” in the New York Times Op-Ed section. Some 40,000 kids were put in physical restraints or locked away in designated areas in the 2009-2010 school year, he reports, often as a first response to non-compliance rather than the very last resort. (Though I’d argue locking a kid away at school isn’t even an option on the last-resort menu.)
Children in Middletown, Conn., told their parents that there was a “scream room” in their school where they could hear other children who had been locked away. Last December, Sandra Baker of Harrodsburg, Ky., found her fourth-grade son, Christopher, who had misbehaved, stuffed inside a duffel bag, its drawstrings pulled tight, and left outside his classroom. He was “thrown in the hall like trash,” she told me. And in April, Corey Foster, a 16-year-old with learning disabilities, died on a school basketball court in Yonkers, N.Y., as four staff members restrained him following a confrontation during a game. The medical examiner ruled early last month that the death was from cardiac arrest resulting from the student’s having an enlarged heart, and no charges were filed.
Lichtenstein quotes an expert on these kinds of techniques. Research has concluded that they are not an effective means of changing behavior. Basically, they just get the kid out of the room.
In Lichtenstein’s daughter’s case, she had been to the basement broom closet “almost daily for three months.” The girl had been suffering nightmares at home, and when the parents asked the school for insight, they didn’t mention the room. It’s only when he and his wife came pick her up – because the girl was naked – that they even learned their girl had been punished in this way.
It’s unbelievable that a school would set up a seclusion room in the first place – especially one that’s so bleak: dangling lightbulb, concrete floors, no chair or table or crayons or human contact for the kid – and also that the school wouldn’t tell parents each and every time a child was sent there. How can they do that without a parent’s consent? How can that not be a known discipline technique at a school?
This isn’t about a rogue teacher or school, considering how much this is apparently going on. This is about a complete disregard for a child’s welfare. I also think this is about a deep ignorance of children, their development, their needs and whether expectations for them at school are really aligned with their age. If Lichtenstein’s daughter is being punished, as a kindergartener, for getting fidgety in class, well, there’s a problem. Kindergarteners are fidgety. They shouldn’t need to sit still all day.
Lichtenstein’s daughter is getting psychological help for the trauma she suffered. She’s in a new school. But what about her old school? Is that room still one of their discipline solutions? What other schools are out there doing that?
Federal guidelines recommended no longer using restraints or seclusion on kids, but is a recommendation enough? Congress has apparently considered a ban. Why is there no will to go ahead and outlaw these outdated and ineffective and dangerous techniques?