By Ashley Fantz
Children forced into cell-like school seclusion rooms
A few weeks before 13-year-old Jonathan King killed himself, he told his parents that his teachers had put him in “time-out.”
“We thought that meant go sit in the corner and be quiet for a few minutes,” Tina King said, tears washing her face as she remembered the child she called “our baby … a good kid.”
But time-out in the boy’s north Georgia special education school was spent in something akin to a prison cell — a concrete room latched from the outside, its tiny window obscured by a piece of paper.
Called a seclusion room, it’s where in November 2004, Jonathan hanged himself with a cord a teacher gave him to hold up his pants.
An attorney representing the school has denied any wrongdoing.
Seclusion rooms, sometimes called time-out rooms, are used across the nation, generally for special needs children. Critics say that along with the death of Jonathan, many mentally disabled and autistic children have been injured or traumatized.
Texas, which was included in that study, has stopped using seclusion and restraint. Georgia has just begun to draft guidelines, four years after Jonathan’s death.
Connecticut education spokesman Tom Murphy said “time-out rooms” were used sparingly and were “usually small rooms with padding on the walls.”
Only Vermont tracks how many children are kept in seclusion from year to year,
Public schools in the United States are now educating more than half a million more students with disabilities than they did a decade ago, according to the National Education Association.
Former Rhode Island special education superintendent Leslie Ryan told CNN that she thought she was helping a disabled fifth-grader by keeping him in a “chill room” in the basement of a public elementary school that was later deemed a fire hazard.
“All I know is I tried to help this boy, and I had very few options,” Ryan said. After the public learned of the room, she resigned from her post with the department but remains with the school.
School records do not indicate why Jonathan King was repeatedly confined to the concrete room or what, if any, positive outcome was expected.
His parents say they don’t recognize the boy described in records as one who liked to kick and punch his classmates. They have launched a wrongful death lawsuit against the school — the Alpine Program in Gainesville — which has denied any wrongdoing. A Georgia judge is expected to rule soon on whether the case can be brought before a jury.
Jonathan’s parents say the boy had been diagnosed since kindergarten with severe depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. But his father remembers him as a boy who was happy when he sang in the church choir.
“He was a hugger, liked to go fishing with me and run after me saying, ‘Daddy, when are we going to the lake?’ ” Don King said.
King said that he wanted to know if there were similar situations in other schools and that critics of seclusion rooms fear there could be.
“You have very little oversight in schools of these rooms — first because the general public doesn’t really even know they exist,” he said.
Disability Rights California, a federally funded watchdog group, found that teachers dragged children into seclusion rooms they could not leave. In one case, they found a retarded 8-year-old had been locked alone in a seclusion room in a northeast California elementary school for at least 31 days in a year.
“What we found outrageous was that we went to the schools and asked to see the rooms and were denied,” said Leslie Morrison, a psychiatric nurse and attorney
“It took a lot of fighting to eventually get in to see where these children were held.”
The Kings say they would have removed their son from the school if they knew he was being held in seclusion, or that he had expressed a desire to hurt himself.
“We would have home schooled him or taken him to another psychologist,” said Don King. “If we would have known, our boy would have never been in that room. He would still be alive.”