'Scream Rooms': Punishing Disabled Students in Isolation

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Disability-rights activists are working to end "quiet rooms," an archaic-sounding punishment used to silence troubled schoolchildren 

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Some schools call it the time-out room. Or the quiet room. But in Middletown, Conn., it's known to many as the "scream room."

Students -- typically those with disabilities -- are put in the small, windowless room as a means of controlling their behavior. The room's cinderblock walls aren't thick enough to drown out the sounds from within, according to this story from the Hartford Courant. In order to be placed in the room, the student usually must have an Individualized Education Plan (known as an IEP) that allows for this type of isolation as a form of "treatment." I put treatment in quotes in this context, given that special education experts say "there was no evidence that secluding a child had any therapeutic value," according to the Courant story.

"These are archaic methods to control behavior and to try to keep people safe," said Jane Hudson, a senior staff attorney with the National Disability Rights Network in Washington, in the Courant story. "Can you imagine how frightening this is for a 6-year-old? Of course, they are going to react, that's why the screaming occurs: 'Get me out of here!'"

To be sure, this is an issue far beyond the borders of Middletown, which has a K-12 enrollment of about 5,000. Advocates for children with disabilities are fighting these types of intervention techniques at the local, state and national level. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has introduced legislation that would prohibit public schools from using "scream rooms" as a means of controlling or disciplining students.

On a related note, the U.S. Department of Education has updated its guidance for public schools in response to revisions to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"It is critical that school districts remain vigilant in their duty to protect the civil rights of all their students, including students with disabilities. When Congress changes the law affecting those rights, districts must ensure that their policies and practices reflect this altered landscape," said Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali in a written statement.

Here are my questions for the next step in this story: Who are the teachers who make use of the "scream rooms?" How many of them are working on provisional licenses, rather than having an extensive background and experience in special education? What are the demographic breakdowns for students being subjected to isolation? Is it more common for boys? Is it more common for minorities?

Have you ever encountered a "scream room," as a parent, educator, or student? Is the problem poor district policy, or teachers who are not properly trained to handle the specialized needs of a particularly challenging student?


This post also appears at The Educated Reporter, an Atlantic partner site.

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Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun from 2002 to 2010, and in 2011 she was Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan. She blogs at www.educatedreporter.com.

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