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Scary schools: broom closet as punishment

September 15, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
Many schools across the country are apparently using physical restraints and seclusion rooms to deal with problem students and, in many cases, don't have to tell parents they're doing so.

Earlier this month, Bill Lichtenstein wrote in the New York Times about the discipline his daughter experienced at a school in Massachusetts in 2006. Young Rose, then a kindergartener with speech and language delays, was frequently locked in a broom closet at the school for disruptive behavior. On the morning her parents were called to come and get her, the little girl had been put in the closet five times in one morning for brief periods. She needed to go to the restroom but was too afraid to tell her teacher, so she stripped off her clothes and used the floor. Her parents found her standing naked in a puddle of urine, with her clothes in a pile next to her.

Lichtenstein wrote that his daughter had been judged a "model of age-appropriate behavior" by her preschool and was usually well-behaved though she could get fidgety. She was sent to the closet for misbehaving in class and not following directions.

The Lichtensteins sued and received an out of court settlement that has paid for the psychiatric treatment Rose needed to recover from the psychological trauma. The Lichtensteins also notified the local child protective service agency, the school board and the their state department of mental health services, but none apparently felt it warranted an investigation.

The legality of these practices seems to vary from state to state and locality to locality. Not all schools are required to tell parents if their child has been sent to a "seclusion room" or if restraints are used, according to Lichtenstein's piece. He said Department of Education data indicates that nearly 40,000 students were placed in restraints or in seclusion rooms during the 2010-2011 school year.

Nineteen states in the U.S. currently still allow corporal punishment in public schools, while most of the rest of the states permit it in private schools if not public schools. Stats seem to suggest that kids with disabilities or minority students are more likely to be subjected to this sort of discipline. There are a couple of stories this week out of Texas and Oklahoma about outraged parents demanding that schools end corporal punishment after their kids were bruised. One seventh grader apparently was punished for having three zeros in a row on homework assignments. Nothing is likely to be done in either case because corporal punishment is perfectly legal in Texas and Oklahoma, both in the school and in the home, and the parents in question had signed permission slips allowing it. They just didn't realize how bad the results were going to be.

Lichtenstein's piece in The New York Times notes that one in eight kids in K-12 schools have some sort of disability or special educational need. Teachers may not always have the training or the resources to deal with their bad behavior effectively.

I'd also speculate that the push for mainstreaming kids with special needs may not always serve the needs of those children or of their classmates. Other kids can't learn if a classmate is being disruptive and neither can the disruptive child.

The problem with seclusion rooms or corporal punishment is that it's not considered as effective as other forms of discipline and certainly it can cause lasting psychological harm, as it did for Lichtenstein's daughter. Scarce resources and poor training might be explanations for this sort of thing happening, but it's not really a good excuse.

I would call the Department of Social Services if someone I knew was regularly locking her child in a dark closet or beating him with a board hard enough to leave bruises. I'm not sure why schools should be able to get away with that sort of treatment when parents can't.


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