Skip to main content

The Trauma of Coercion: Disabled Elementary School Students and 'Isolation Boxes'

Isolation boxes have been used as punishment against students with special needs for decades. Why did it take neurotypical students being isolated for parents to collectively speak out?
A time-out room.

A time-out room.

In the fall of 2017, news of the six-by-six bare pine boxes—which have, in their various forms, been called "seclusion enclosures," "isolation booths," "isolation boxes," and "time-out rooms"—used to confine elementary school students in eastern Iowa, sometimes for over an hour at a time, went viral. As the headlines mounted, angry parents learned they did not legally have to be informed of such measures if taken against their children by educators. Critics contended that the use of these boxes amounted to solitary confinement.

There have been a flurry of cases involving isolation boxes over the last six years. In 2012, parents at Longview's Mint Valley Elementary School in Washington state were scandalized by the alleged use of a padded cell. In 2014, schools in the Mansfield Independent School District in the Dallas-Fort Worth area were found to place students in windowless, concrete "recovery rooms" around 800 times over the course of the 2013–14 school year; their stays in the cells sometimes spanned hours, even an entire school day. Special education students, it was noted, were often singled out for confinement in recovery rooms. In 2016, parents in Kansas were enraged after a fourth-grader was kept in one such box as punishment for being disruptive in class.

There have been other questionable methods used to punish school students. More recently, an Indiana nine-year-old with autism made headlines after being handcuffed and arrested by police on campus. The story, like so many others, became one of competing narratives: The nine-year-old's family claims he was defending himself against violent bullying, and the school claims the child himself was violent against a teacher and other students.

Though the specifics of each incident vary, there's a clear theme here: Seclusion, confinement, and restraint are overwhelmingly used in schools against students with disabilities, particularly cognitive, behavioral, and psychosocial disabilities. A 2014 analysis of the Department of Education's Civil Rights Data Collection by NPR and ProPublica concluded that it was children with disabilities who were being secluded or restrained in 75 percent of incidents.

State-level policies, such as the California Education Code, give special education staff the autonomy to enforce more aggressive discipline than general education staff. That discipline may include seclusion and isolation; denial of bathroom or lunchtime privileges; physical restraint with hugs, holds, belts, or handcuffs; "prone restraint"—pinning a student to the floor—and even, in some cases, violent measures such as the application of electric shock. Though they are often given fairly free rein over their students, special education staff are not always given adequate training and resources in mastering the de-escalation of conflict and behavioral issues.

The dominant argument used to justify seclusion boxes and other such methods are not disciplinary measures claims that these methods are used to protect students from inflicting harm on their peers or themselves. Civil rights lawyer Lanette Suarez, in a recent comment in the University of Miami Law Review, argues differently, claiming that seclusion and restraint have too often become sanctioned forms of abuse and physical punishment.

"In school settings, the practice of restraining and secluding children with disabilities for student safety has crossed-over into a form of corporal punishment that infringes upon the students' ability to receive an inclusive education," she writes.

Recent outcry over use of seclusion boxes makes the issue feel new, but the use of restraint and isolation as methods of controlling, restricting, and confining disabled children is a well-worn tradition. Before special education was integrated into the public school system, children with all kinds of disabilities and non-normative patterns of behavior, speech, appearance, and thought were funneled into segregated institutions, where restraint and coercion were common pedagogical tactics for maintaining control and order.

In the past several years, many parents have gone to social media to publicize and spur public awareness around the use of isolation as a disciplinary or "calming" tactic in schools. In some cases, parents' partnerships with local disability rights organizations have resulted in legislative changes.

After one Tennessee elementary school boy allegedly spent two consecutive school days alone in a locked cinderblock closet, activist efforts by local non-profits like Disability Rights Tennessee, Tennessee Voices for Children, and Autism Tennessee led to the passage of the Special Education Behavioral Supports Act in 2011. The bill prevents isolation or restraint of students in any non-emergency situation, and requires teachers to notify parents, the Department of Education, and school administration immediately if the measure is used.

Similar efforts have begun in other states, particularly as a rash of similar concerns have been raised by parents in recent months. In particular, the culture of silence that has sometimes prevented parents from becoming aware of the ways in which their children are being disciplined at school (partly due to the long history of institutionalizing and isolating disabled children) has begun, in some ways, to lift. In particular, many parents are becoming more empowered with regards to their own involvement in developing individual education plans (IEPs) for their children.

In October, for example, a couple in LaPorte County, Indiana, accused Kingsford Heights Elementary School staff of going against their agreed-upon IEP to restrain their seven-year-old autistic daughter regularly over a two-week period to address routine behavioral issues (rather than imminent harm to self or others). Their public complaints against the school mark a growing pattern in discussions about special education: more focus than ever on equality, parental rights, and the rights of disabled students to self-determination and dignity.

Most notably, parents of the students who were allegedly locked in four-by-four padded boxes at Mint Valley Elementary School have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, currently underway at the United States District Court for Western Washington, against the school district. Some parents have spoken out against the lawsuit, claiming that their mentally ill and/or cognitively disabled children chose to use the isolation boxes in order to calm themselves. Still, the parents involved in the lawsuit maintain that the students in question were traumatized by the ongoing seclusion, and that parents were deliberately kept in the dark about the practice.

For those children, the darkness wasn't just a metaphor; it was their reality.