If you watch any TV shows or movies about prison, you’ve likely encountered many a scene highlighting the hell that is solitary confinement — a form of punishment isolating prisoners from human contact and often driving them mad. It’s cruel and unusual, albeit common practice, and no doubt psychologically troubling for the person who finds themselves shut off from the outside world for hours, days, and even decades. But it’s a punishment reserved only for convicts, right?
Several schools across Iowa have been using ‘Seclusion Rooms’ in classrooms as a time-out for troubled, unruly, or insubordinate pupils for some time now. And if the idea of giving students the opportunity to cool off and collect themselves sounds good in theory, it looks bad in practice.
Framed as being helpful for students who are over-stimulated or in need of a safe environment where they can calm down without harming themselves or their classmates, ‘Seclusion Rooms’ can be found in more than 20 schools across Eastern Iowa and are constructed out of plywood and no larger than 6 x 6 feet.
State guidelines mandate that ‘Seclusion Rooms’ “be of ‘reasonable dimensions,’ have adequate light and ventilation and be a comfortable temperature. Rooms may lock, but that lock either must engage only when a staff member is holding it or must automatically release when there is an emergency, like a fire alarm or a power outage.” And while the length of time students are stuffed in the box varies and is largely up to the individual teachers who send them there, in some instances, students are placed in the box for more than an hour.
Additionally, schools are required to contact parents whenever their child has been sent to the hole, as it were, but they are not required to obtain parental permission to shove kids in there in the first place.
If this sounds horrifying, that’s because it is. As a former Cedar Rapids, Iowa resident, whose child, a young girl for whom she was the legal guardian, spent time in an unapproved ‘Seclusion Room,’ stated in an interview with The Progressive, “If I was to do what they did, it would be child abuse. Why is it OK for the school district to do that to a child?”
And that’s not the worst of it.
Iowa American Civil Liberties Union counsel Daniel Zeno says that black children are being disproportionately targeted, stating, “All the kids who were put in seclusion rooms who didn’t have a disability were African American. Every one.” Zeno and a group of other attorneys are filing a petition with the Iowa Department of Education to significantly limit use of these ‘Seclusion Rooms.’
As a teacher and staunch supporter of public schools, I am initially inclined to give the school districts the benefit of the doubt, believing that they, however misguided, have students’ best interests in mind and have implemented these ‘Seclusion Rooms’ in an attempt to help children with behavioral issues cope better in the classroom. But the mother and humanitarian in me just can’t abide it.
While there may be research that states allowing students to escape to a safe environment where they can decompress alone is beneficial to their emotional and behavioral well-being, these ‘Seclusion Rooms’ don’t appear to have the zen-like atmosphere required for this type of measure to be effective. Instead, they look like prison cells and no doubt feel that way, too, not to mention perpetuate dangerous institutional oppression and racism.
And at the end of the day, I can confidently say that if anyone locked my child in a cage for an hour or more, there wouldn’t be a ‘Seclusion Room’ strong enough to contain the hellfire I’d rain down on the offending party.