Eleven-year-old Ryphath Knopp told state lawmakers at a hearing on school restraints what it was like being thrown into a small padded room on a regular basis at his public school in Columbia: Such “isolation rooms” are “an adapted version of solitary confinement, which was a form of torture, may I remind you,” said the boy, who told the committee that he has autism, anxiety and depression and was put in “seclusion” as punishment “almost all day, every day” until his parents took him out of school and started teaching him at home.
Sounds somewhere between unlikely and impossible, doesn’t it? But this inhumane use of isolation as punishment in schools is far from an isolated incident, either in Missouri or across the country. And no, absolutely nothing about this medieval practice in modern schools is funny.
If you’d been tossed into a box to calm you down, Knopp asked the legislators, would that “make you calmer, or would that make you madder?” Just listening to the testimony at the Tuesday hearing was infuriating enough.
Shawan Daniels, a mother from Columbia, testified that her fourth grader was put in a “wooden box” at the first sign of “any type of misbehavior.” In theory, isolation is never used that way. But after one such occasion Nov. 4, Daniels had to take her son to the hospital for an injury to his arm, she said. It took her five weeks to get even an incomplete report of what had happened, and “now he’s afraid of people at school.”
Another mom from Columbia tearfully described the asthma attacks, head injuries and emotional trauma that being “thrown in a box” had caused her son.
Before we go any further, let’s hear the other side of the story: That’s not really happening in any Columbia public school, a district spokeswoman said, but just happens to be occurring inside a public school building where the district pays an outfit called Catapult Learning a lot of money to teach and sometimes restrain kids the district doesn’t know what else to do with.
Blaming the district for what happens at the Center of Responsive Education, she said, would be like blaming The Kansas City Star for something that happened in a part of The Star’s building that we just happened to have leased to an outfit we really had nothing to do with.
Well, no, it isn’t.
Ever tossing a kid into a padded or wooden room is a mistake and an acknowledgment of failure, period. The U.S. Department of Education warned schools eight years ago that there’s no evidence that either seclusion or restraints ever do anything to improve behavior. Using these discredited methods anyway as a matter of course is an indictment of our schools.
Missouri state Reps. Ian Mackey, a St. Louis Democrat, and Dottie Bailey, a Republican from Eureka, have introduced bills that would curtail, regulate and define for the first time the currently out-of-control use of these practices in our state. The legislation has a real chance of passing this year, and it’s so important for our children that it does.
“These isolation rooms are brand new” in Missouri, Mackey said in an interview, and are typically justified by the argument that “all these kids are so violent that we need them,” when that’s not the case. “There have always been fights in schools, and never have we thrown kids in closets” being marketed to schools by outfits like Catapult.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Art McCoy, superintendent of the Jennings School District, told lawmakers how his district avoids the need for any of this by training teachers and parents to work more productively with all kinds of students. Instead of restraints, they offer “comfort spaces” with recliners, spa music and stuffed animals. Laugh if you want to, but his record says that’s what works. Doesn’t spa music sound more calming than solitary confinement?
Yet the misuse of restraints and isolation has been reported in every part of the state, Mackey said. Thirty states already have laws limiting restraints and seclusion, and 19 prohibit it altogether. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker recently signed an emergency order banning the use of these practices after the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica revealed widespread abuses there.
The most recent federal statistics available, for the 2013-14 school year, show that at least 2,347 Missouri students were put in seclusion, and 1,932 were put in physical restraints. “At least” because reporting is so spotty.
Lawmakers say so much and do so little to put kids first. Passing Bailey and Mackey’s bills into law would be a great way to show it’s not all talk.