Ending Use of Seclusion Rooms in Illinois Schools

Timothy Higus

Associate Editor

Loyola University School of Law, JD 2022

An article published on November 19, 2019 by ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune has alerted Illinois lawmakers, parents, and school personnel of the widespread use of seclusion rooms for isolated timeouts. The use of these rooms, which has now been halted by the Illinois State Board of Education (“ISBE”) and Governor J.B. Pritzker, has been legal in Illinois for over twenty years. The students who are most frequently placed in these rooms have an emotional, behavioral, or intellectual disability, and special education advocates are calling for an end to this practice. These rooms were introduced as a legally-sanctioned separation method to prevent students from harming themselves or others, but the investigative article found that students are often unlawfully placed in these rooms for minor behavioral infractions. The report also found that parents and school administrators did not have knowledge of the full scope of isolated time-out use for their students.

Emergency action by the Board of Education

The day after the article was published, ISBE and Governor J.B. Pritzker issued an emergency action to end the use of seclusion rooms and restrict the use of student restraint. The emergency action bans the use of isolated time-outs and restricts the use of seclusion rooms to only therapeutic situations. The new policy strictly prohibits these rooms from being used for punishment, and now when a seclusion room is used, it must remain unlocked with a staff member present. Additionally, the policy requires that all public schools submit data on their use of seclusion rooms for the last two academic years. Going forward, ISBE will require all use of seclusion rooms and restraint to be reported to ISBE within 48 hours of the incident. Parents will also no longer be able to opt-out of notifications regarding the use of restraint or seclusion rooms.

Legislative action

While the ISBE’s action has put an immediate end to isolated time-outs, there are now currently reform bills in front of both the Illinois House and Senate to ban the use of isolated time-outs and institute staff training. A permanent revision of the law ending isolation rooms is important because once the spotlight of the investigations fades, school districts and the ISBE will not be able to revert back to the old, harmful use of the rooms. In a joint education committee session on Tuesday, January 7, 2020, state legislatures heard from educators and advocates on the best way to implement this legislation. During that session, lawmakers questioned whether seclusion rooms had any therapeutic advantage. A lobbyist for the National Association of Social Workers said that there is no advantage for the use of the rooms and schools should be making social workers and behavior specialists more available to students and train staff about the best way to handle a student in crisis. Additionally, other advocates said this training must be “sustained and systematic,” and that a one-time training would be insufficient for real change. After this article, twelve members of Congress, mostly from Illinois, have made this conversation national and urged Secretary DeVos to guide schools away from the use of seclusion rooms and physical restraint that restricts student’s breathing.

A new oversight by ISBE

One major change that will need to take place is oversight and enforcement of the law. The U.S. Department of Education calculated state-wide seclusion levels for the 2013-14 academic year and Illinois ranked first in use of seclusion. However, state officials say there was no requirement that schools report incidents of seclusion, so the ISBE was not aware of how pervasive use of seclusion rooms were. Under the new ISBE rules and impending legislation,  reporting will be mandatory. Since the ProPublica Illinois/Chicago Tribune article, investigations have been opened into the seven schools named in the article and one additional school because of a complaint received by ISBE this fall. Investigators from ISBE will then report findings of abuse and neglect to the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS).

Concerns about a ban

Not everyone is in favor of a ban, though. Parents and school leaders have both expressed concerns that, at times, seclusion is necessary for students who need a sensory break. A WTTW report spoke to a mother of a student with autism that said her student needs space to himself when he gets upset and she trusts the school to use time-out spaces appropriately. A Bloomington superintendent spoke of the legislation as a “knee-jerk” reaction to the ProPublica/Tribune article. He cited that staff member in his schools have been injured since the action took effect and is concerned that staff members will leave the profession or not work for schools in the first place. This concern has materialized at Gages Lake School that has been investigated by DCFS, and now ISBE, for twenty-one abuse violations regarding the schools use of restraint and seclusion rooms. Gages Lake faculty has said that they no longer know how to deal with student behavior without seclusion and restraint and say their safety and the safety of the students is at risk. There have been more than two dozen resignations or retirements since the investigation began last year and there is a concern that the school may not be able to operate safely with such a limited faculty. An administrator at Gages Lake has said that student hospitalizations and suspensions have both increased since the investigation began.

Going forward          

Although the emergency rules are only effective for 150 days from their November start day, it seems likely that the General Assembly will adopt legislation that puts a permanent ban on the use of seclusion rooms. Governor Pritzker has called the practice “appalling” and said he is going to work with legislatures to end the practice. The attention on Illinois law has inspired a reintroduction of the Keeping All Students Safe Act in the U.S. House of Representatives to ban the practice in any school that receives federal funding.