In November, the Tribune and ProPublica Illinois published a shocking investigative report documenting the rampant abuse of children in Illinois public schools — practices that put students into “seclusion rooms” and physical restraints to deal with unwelcome behavior. In many cases, the kids have autism or other disabilities.
One 9-year-old with autism and epilepsy who was locked in a 5-foot-square box wet his pants, defecated and smeared feces on the wall and cried to be let out. A 7-year-old banged his head on a concrete wall. One child was confined for 10 hours.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker responded by calling for steps to prevent such mistreatment. The Illinois State Board of Education took emergency action, banning the use of such rooms except when a trained adult is present and the door is unlocked. Timeouts can be used only to protect the safety of students and staff or for therapeutic reasons — not as punishment for disobedience or other infractions.

While we applaud the response from Springfield, those temporary rules expire in April. The General Assembly is considering legislation to address the issue.

The rising concern about seclusion rooms also has migrated to Washington, D.C. Last week, Illinois’ U.S. senators and 10 members of the state’s House delegation submitted a letter to federal Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos urging the department to prohibit seclusion, as well as physical restraints that restrict breathing. Both practices, they argue, are “putting the psychological well-being and lives of children at risk every day.”

The members of Congress are right to be worried. In Illinois, thousands of kids were locked up not because they posed threats to anyone’s well-being, but instead as discipline for ordinary misbehavior. In more than a third of the 12,000 examined cases in which the basis for seclusion was recorded, the Tribune/ProPublica report noted, “school workers documented no safety reason for the seclusion.”

We can’t say with authority that a federal ban is the best overall solution to the grave abuses cited by the Tribune and ProPublica Illinois. The behavioral problems of some special needs students can be exceptionally challenging for teachers and other school staff, who may be bitten, scratched or hit. There may be value in giving state education policymakers the flexibility to experiment with different methods of helping students.


But the Department of Education immediately can — should — help state lawmakers and education officials assess and eradicate current levels of abuse. This is the moment for Washington to bring rapid research and guidance to what’s suddenly become a national issue.

This should be a prompt search for best practices and best laws, not a five-year project. Among the questions an Education Department inquiry can resolve:

• Nationwide, how widespread is the Illinois-style overuse and misuse of seclusion rooms and physical restraints?

• How is it that some school districts have halted all use of seclusion rooms — and come to appreciate, rather than regret, that decision?

• What are the realistic alternatives for calming children whose special needs require impulse control, orderly environments or occasional separation from classroom stimuli.

Federal guidelines published in 2016 currently serve as a check on school districts. The guidelines say it’s permissible “to restrain or seclude a student with a disability in situations where the student’s behavior poses imminent danger of serious physical harm to self or others.” But the guidelines discourage the repeated use of these practices on individual students “where alternative methods also could prevent imminent danger to self or others.”

That all sounds reasonable, yet the Tribune/ProPublica investigation suggests that many school districts are flouting those guidelines. Maybe a nationwide ban is the solution. But the U.S. Department of Education is uniquely positioned to give states and school districts workable alternatives that will stop the abuse.

Editorial by the Chicago Tribune

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