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Central Illinois schools adjust to emergency rules for 'time-out' rooms

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BLOOMINGTON — Emergency rules put in place after reports of children being placed in isolation rooms or improperly restrained were intended to enhance student safety, but school officials are concerned that the new rules could put more students and staff at risk of harm.

“If we can’t utilize our calming spaces the way we need to, which would be with an adult outside the room, I see us having to potentially look at placements for students out of the district because we would get to a point where as a public school district we can’t meet their needs," said Michelle Lamboley, executive director of special services at McLean County Unit 5, based in Normal. "That would become unsafe for them and our staff regularly and we wouldn’t be able to meet their needs.”

After receiving comments from hundreds of schools, educators and families — some of whom expressed concerns similar to those of Lamboley and others interviewed for this story before the Illinois State Board of Education took action on the permanent rules — the board at its Feb. 18 meeting approved changes to proposed permanent rules.

Those changes would allow limited use of placing a student in isolated time out when an adult in the time-out space faces imminent danger of serious physical harm.

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The rules still need approval from the state’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. JCAR may consider the proposed permanent rules at its March 18 meeting, according to a spokesman for the ISBE.

Under the proposed permanent rules, as revised, a trained staff person would have to keep the student within sight, the room used for isolated time out would have to be unlocked and documentation would be required citing the specific danger present and the lesser restrictive interventions tried first.

The emergency rules will be in effect until April 17. 

The emergency rules, among other things, prohibit use of locked, isolated seclusion rooms and prohibit certain physical restraints, including “child control positions” in which one or more trained staff physically hold a child who is standing, seated or on the floor. The emergency rules and proposed permanent rules ban face-down floor restraints but permit face-up restraints.

Under prior practice, a student who was considered a danger to himself or others could be placed alone in a room — called an “isolated time-out” — but had to remain under constant observation. The room was required to meet certain specifications, such as having no electrical outlets, exposed wiring or other objects that could be used to cause harm.

With the emergency rules, a staff member has to be in the room with the child — and being that close to a student who has been deemed a danger to themselves or others is one of the things that sparks concern.

“When a student is frustrated, they will lash out. They could hurt themselves or staff,” said Leslie Hanson, Bloomington District 87’s director of special education. “It’s a tight space when someone is escalating … and someone is standing there.”

District 87 Superintendent Barry Reilly said, “I’m worried about kids and staff members getting hurt.”

"I feel strongly that there’s a risk for staff injury and student injury because you’ve now put a person in a room that was meant for a student to be able to regulate themselves and you’ve put them in their space," Lamboley said. "They’re no longer able to calm themselves the way they're used to."

At The Baby Fold’s Hammitt School, a therapeutic day school for students with complex emotional and mental health issues, academics director Rhonda Howard said, “We saw an uptick in staff injury” since the rule change.

There also has been an increase in police involvement when the situation can’t be calmed, “which is the last thing we want," said Howard.

"You can’t keep restraining and restraining and restraining. You have to call because there’s nothing else at that point," Lamboley said. "If (students are) that unsafe, we have to call."

The emergency rules were issued by the Illinois State Board of Education in November in response to an investigation by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois that found many children were placed in isolation for reasons that violated the law. 

The abruptness of the changes caused some of the problems.

“It’s highly unusual to get rule changes in the middle of the year,” said Reilly.

Unit 5 Special Education Administrator Nancy Braun said the district has adjusted its policy several times since December trying to keep up with the changes.

Howard said the Hammitt staff had to figure out how the school could meet students’ needs without options that previously had “worked best to maintain safety.”

Howard said, “Students find comfort in what they know” and changing procedures overnight “led to more escalated behaviors.”

Unit 5 administrators said their students often request to use the rooms because they know if they have "time away," they can calm themselves.

"It’s not necessarily staff members escorting a student that’s out of control to that space," Braun said.

Requiring the adult to supervise the students from inside the room instead from the other side of the door interrupts the students' ability to regulate their emotions, Lamboley said.

"We’ve now taken that away from them and so then what happens they’re re-escalating to the point where they’re trying to hurt themselves and that’s then when it becomes necessary for a restraint," she said. "Unfortunately it’s causing kids to cycle more, is what I think is happening, because they can’t get that regulation that they’re used to."

Practices such as time-out rooms and use of physical restraints almost exclusively involve students with emotional or mental health problems who are eligible for special education services and have Individualized Education Plans and a behavioral intervention plan.

Hanson said the behavioral intervention plan outlines restrictive disciplinary measures as part of the IEP and the program is developed in conjunction with the student’s family. 

When a "time-out" room or physical restraint is used, parents are notified within 24 hours of what was done and the reason for it, explained Hanson. This is always done in writing and sometimes a teacher also personally contacts a parent, she said.

Under the proposed permanent rules, schools also must notify the the ISBE within 48 hours of restraining or putting a student in a time-out room.

"Having the relationship and communication with parents is key,” said Hanson. “We’re partners with them.”

The number of students who have IEPs with a behavioral intervention plan varies, said Hanson. Currently, there are 16 such students at Stevenson School, but sometimes there are more and sometimes as few as six, she said.

Only staff members trained in the practices are allowed to use restraints, called “child control positions.” Generally these are seated or standing restraints, but some schools use what are described as "floor restraints." Supine floor restraints, in which a student is face up, are still allowed under the proposed rules but prone, or face down, positions are not.

Not all schools have time-out rooms.

Isolation rooms are not used in Decatur Public Schools, for instance, where staff is being trained in the new emergency rules.

Charleston school Superintendent Todd Vilardo said the district has "quiet rooms" at two elementary schools. They are used by trained special education staff as an option for when a student's behavior reaches a point that he's a threat to harm himself or others. There are other approaches as well, or a student might be sent to spend time in the school office or taken for a walk in the hall or outside.

At Stanford-based Olympia School District, Superintendent Andrew Wise said, “We do everything we can to educate students in our own environment,” but if it can’t be done in a regular school, they are referred to Hammitt or High Road in Bloomington or another specialized school.

If specialized schools can’t provide services under the new rules and send students back to home districts, “there will be a direct impact,” said Wise.

That hasn’t happened at Olympia but, Wise said, “We have heard other superintendents talk about that.”

Lamboley agreed bringing the student back to their home district would be difficult.

"We placed them (in the day school) originally for a reason so it would be very hard for us because we can’t meet their needs either so then we would have to look for alternate options," she said.

That is part of what concerns Dianne Schultz, The Baby Fold’s chief executive officer.

She said placements could be affected for students with more complex problems and they could “be at risk for being underserved.”

"They used to be able to take our most difficult, intense students and handle them," Lamboley said of Hammitt and High Road. "I worry now that they’re not going to be able to without being able to use the levels of restraint that they were used to and the level of seclusion options that they were."

If students are returned from a day school therapeutic program and a traditional school cannot provide needed services, they may be at home with an hour-a-day program until a 24-hour school placement can be found.

"It could prompt us having to look to facilities outside of the area that we wouldn’t typically," Lamboley said. "We don’t want to bus our kids out of town if we don’t have to."

Many of the requirements outlined in the proposed rules are procedures already used, local school leaders said.

Hanson said whenever “de-escalation strategies” are used, such as a time-out room or physical restraint, a debrief follows with discussion of what other strategies could have been used, the possible triggers, whether a change in the physical environment could have helped and could anything be done differently.

Howard said Hammitt School already does many of the things in the new requirements, such as having an observer not directly involved in restraining the child assess the student’s condition and having a nurse check the child.

“We’re thrilled that it’s written down to make sure everyone else is doing it,” said Howard.

Schultz said the increasing number of students with emotional and behavior issues is something that has been “building up for years” and “the solution to this really goes beyond ISBE and the school systems.”

She said students frequently come from families impacted by trauma. Some have limited or no access to behavioral services and mental health support, which places an undue burden on schools, said Schultz.

Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota


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