Timeout rooms under scrutiny

Schools face criticism for overuse of such rooms, and experts look at whether taking disruptive children out of classrooms works

From his teacher's point of view, Christopher Nygren's behavior merited a stay in the school's timeout room.

Once inside the 5-by-6-foot room, Christopher, a special-education student whose disabilities include extreme sensitivity to noise, rammed his body against the steel-reinforced door and banged his head on the cement-block walls, pleading to get out.

His mother says she later saw the dashes on a piece of paper where the school staff member observing Christopher marked each harmful act.

Christopher's parents have brought a lawsuit against the Minneapolis school system, and complaints from other parents, too, are bringing new attention to the use of "timeout" rooms in Minnesota. State officials have proposed new regulations to limit the amount of time students can be placed in such rooms and to bar school officials from locking the doors.

The concept of timeout is not new. About three decades ago, residential treatment centers, and then schools, began using timeouts to de-escalate conflicts and to give disruptive residents and students a chance to cool off.

But now schools sometimes use timeout rooms to discipline students rather than just let them calm down, prompting debates about the proper balance between students' needs and school safety.

As originally conceived, "timeout" was intended to briefly remove attention or stimulus from children who were acting up and give them time to reconsider their behavior, says Ken Merrell, a University of Oregon professor who studies children at risk.

In a classroom, a teacher can simply withdraw attention for as few as 10 or 15 seconds by looking in another direction. In some cases, though, teachers decide it's best to remove a student from the group setting.

"There are times when children become so out of control that they become a safety hazard to themselves and staff," says Lorie Schulstad-Werk, president of the Minnesota Administrators of Special Education. "They're able to take time to wind down and cool down and get themselves together."

As schools pay more attention to safety and strive to place more special-education students in regular classrooms, teachers may be inclined to use timeout rooms more extensively.

"If a student gets on your nerves and you a have a timeout room and you can put the child in a place where you don't have to deal with them, the tendency is to leave them there," says C. Michael Nelson, a professor of special education at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

At the combined middle school and high school in Clairton, Pa., students can find themselves sitting in a former girls' locker room for hours at a time. The school replaced the showers, toilets, and plumbing with a dozen study carrels from the library and relabeled it the isolated classroom environment - the ICE room.

Teachers can send students to the room for one class period at a time, instructing them to mull over misdeeds and write up a plan for better behavior. The school's two principals can also direct students to spend whole days in the ICE room, in lieu of suspensions for infractions such as excessive tardiness or insubordination.

More than a third of the students have spent some time in the ICE room, with an even split between special-education students and the general population.

"They don't like it. It takes them out of the social mix. They can't see their friends," says middle-school principal Susan Hicks. "Parents are a lot happier because we're not sending as many students home as we normally would have."

Critics say such uses of timeout rooms can be counterproductive and even harmful to children. Students removed from the classroom often wind up falling further behind in their schoolwork, and sending a child to a timeout room can actually reinforce bad behavior, some experts say. If students are trying to escape from classwork, then being removed gives them what they want.

"This is not usually the kind of thing that brings about lasting positive change in children," says Larisa Cummings, a staff attorney at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley, Calif., who has challenged the use of timeout rooms in a California school district.

In some instances, being in a timeout room is harrowing. Christopher's mother, Sharon Nygren, says her son was finally removed from the room when he tied a sleeve of his shirt around the doorknob and the other around his throat.

"The reaction was just to shove him away somewhere," says Ms. Nygren. "We wouldn't allow an animal to be treated like that."

So far, a federal trial court has upheld the school's use of timeout rooms, but the Nygrens are appealing the case.

Such extreme examples of alleged misuse are rare, says attorney Susan Gorn, who tracks education law for LRP Publications in Horsham, Pa. But she says the use of timeout rooms for special-education students may be increasing as more such students are mainstreamed. Federal and state laws make it difficult to take extreme disciplinary measures such as expulsion against special-education students.

Minnesota is one of eight states that have regulations on the use of timeout rooms for special-education students in public schools, according to the Education Commission of the States in Denver, Colo.

At most, timeout should last no longer than 15 minutes, experts say. One rule of thumb is one minute for each year of a student's age. Timeout shouldn't become a power struggle or escalate into a conflict, they say. And it should be combined with a behavioral-management plan that includes positive reinforcement. Although special-education teachers do receive some training along these lines, experts say the teachers could use more of this support.

"It's very important to understand the function of the student's behavior before you leap to a procedure that might indirectly reinforce the behavior you don't want," Professor Nelson says.

Currently in Minnesota, there is no suggested time limit, and the rooms can be locked if equipped with automatic releases for fire alarms. The proposed time limit and elimination of the locks will be the subject of a series of public hearings this month.

Tom Lombard, assistant commissioner for Minnesota's office of special education, says special-education teachers should view timeout rooms as an "exceptional intervention" rather than a common resort when a child misbehaves.

The Nygrens' attorney, Amy Goetz of the Center for Education Law in St. Paul, says those limits would be an improvement over the current standard, but she is concerned that educators may resort to physical restraints or calling police rather than more positive behavioral support.

Christopher has since transferred to a Minneapolis charter school designed for students who once needed hospitalization and have gradually returned to school. He attends two days a week and works from home the other three. An aide hired by his family accompanies him to help him stay calm. "He's gradually learned to trust educators, and he's started to work again," his mother says.

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