A group of Illinois lawmakers is urging federal education officials to ban the practice of secluding students, or restraining them using dangerous or life-threatening techniques.

The lawmakers sent a letter to federal Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asking her office to promote safer strategies to calm kids down.

Schools sometimes use these strategies as a form of discipline or to minimize disruptions. Illinois recently banned schools from secluding children in a room away from their peers, a practice considered a last resort keep children from hurting themselves or others.

“In reality, the rooms have the opposite effect: children throw themselves at the door and scratch at the windows trying to escape. Some are recorded as urinating on themselves, undressing, attempting to commit suicide, or crying out that they want to die,” the lawmakers wrote. In some states, they wrote, children have actually died in seclusion rooms.

Illinois is one of the few states that have outright ended seclusion. That state’s ban is new, and follows a November 2019 report from the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois that found Illinois children were secluded 20,000 times between August 2017 and December 2018.

How schools handle seclusion is largely left up to states.

Colorado, Michigan and Virginia each have some form of restriction on seclusion in schools, NPR reported, but these laws vary in their strength.


So how does Washington compare?

In 2015, legislators passed a law that keeps school districts from restraining or isolating students unless they pose an imminent threat to themselves or someone else. State law also requires districts to start reporting how often they seclude children, as well as the number of injuries to students and staff and types of restraints used.

Unfortunately, as Seattle Times reporter Neal Morton reported last June, there’s still little solid information available about how often schools here use those strategies.

That’s partly because Washington school districts self-report such incidents, and experts worry many districts under-report or misreport their data.

A recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report, for instance, found that nearly three in four Washington school districts reported zero incidents of restraining or secluding students in 2015-16. And statewide data suggests that about 40% of schools reported no incidents in the 2017-18 school year.

Experts suspect it will take time for districts to comply with state law. But as more do, estimates will become more accurate.

Interested in more coverage on seclusion or isolation in schools? See this 2016 story about a special education student who was confined more than 600 times despite Washington state law.

More recently, Seattle Times reporter Dahlia Bazzaz covered a civil-rights lawsuit involving a special-education teacher who alleges she was locked in a room with a student.