Quiet Rooms: Illinois schools lead the nation in imprisoning very young, disabled children in isolation chambers

20 years ago, Illinois was rocked by a scandal after the widespread practice of locking schoolchildren, especially those with disabilities or special needs, in small, confining boxes was revealed. The teachers who imprisoned these children argued that they did so out of the interests of safety — that of the imprisoned students, of the other students, and of school staff.

In the wake of that scandal, Illinois codified rules for "quiet rooms" — small cells, sometimes padded, where children are locked up as part of a school safety program. Ironically, by promulgating rules intended to curb abuse, the state legitimized the practice, making Illinois the national leader in the use of this inhumane, abusive practice.

Propublica and the Chicago Tribune used extensive Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain records on the use of "quiet rooms" in Illinois schools and uncovered a disturbing pattern of what amounts to widespread torture of children, especially children with disabilities or special needs, in both private and public schools.

The investigation also revealed that the "quiet rooms" are only incidentally used in the interests of safety — rather, they are a disciplinary tool, used to punish children who are disruptive, disobedient, or who get on their teachers' bad side.

The Illinois rules require that an adult be stationed outside of the "quiet room" when children are locked inside of it, and that they make minute-by-minute notes of everything the locked-up kid says or does, and weirdly, this seems like the sole legal requirement that schools comply with to any great degree, which means that Propublica was able to obtain thousands of pages' worth of terrifying logs that record children begging to be released, sobbing uncontrollably, and even self-harming while locked away, as an educator sits outside of the box, calmly noting down each of these cries and injuries, without acting on them.

Other forms or record-keeping were spotty or nonexistent: Propublica uncovered a pattern of failures to notify (or adequately notify) the parents of children who'd been locked away; they also uncovered falsified and incomplete federal reporting by some schools. Both of these forms of reporting are legally required.

The logs reveal children who have lost control of their bladders and/or bowels, sometimes undressed, sitting in filth, urine and feces, begging for their release. Some of these children were incarcerated for ten hours — from their arrival at school until their pickup — only to be re-incarcerated on their return the next morning.

The reasons given for incarcerating children include speaking in a disrepectful tone, failing to complete classwork, attempting to "provoke" other students, and other issues that have no nexus with safety. Some of the cells used are padded; others are bare wood and steel. A typical cell measures 6×8'.

Some schools seem entirely reliant on the isolation cells: Bridges Learning Center near Centralia has five isolation cells that are sometimes full by 8:35AM. Though the school only has 65 students, they imprisoned students in isolation cells 1,288 times during the 15 months covered by the records.

Many states ban or strictly limit the use of isolation cells in schools. In Illinois, the main legal rules are about extensive record-keeping, however, no one is required to review the records generated during imprisonment sessions, and many school districts admit that they had never reviewed these records (some were shocked when they did). Illinois ranks number one in the USA for the use of isolation cells.

Many of the schools that Propublica and the Tribune contacted refused to comply with records requests. Only three out of 20 districts consented to a visit.

It doesn't have to be that way. Jim Nelson has run the North DuPage Special Education Cooperative since July 2016, where he has removed the doors from the isolation cells and filled them with "a lava lamp, fuzzy pillows, a beanbag and puzzles." Students decide for themselves when to go into it, "when they need a break."

Nelson is an exception, and it's easy to see why: while the Illinois rules codify how the isolation cells can be used, they do not require teachers to try any other interventions to defuse situations before turning to isolation.

The Kaskaskia district's revolving-door use of the timeout booths stands out, but some other districts seclude children nearly as frequently.

The Special Education District of Lake County used isolated timeout about 1,200 times over the 15-month period reporters examined. Northern Suburban Special Education District in Highland Park put children in seclusion more than 900 times.

Some traditional school districts also relied on seclusion. For example, Valley View School District 365U in Romeoville and Schaumburg District 54 each secluded students more than 160 times in the time period examined. Wilmette District 39 put students in isolated timeout 361 times in 2017-18 alone.

Illinois' seclusion rules are more permissive than federal guidelines, which say seclusion should be used only in cases of "imminent danger of serious physical harm." In Illinois, children can be secluded for physical safety concerns regardless of the threat level.

The state law also doesn't encourage staff to try other interventions first. And while federal officials suggest that seclusion should end as soon as the problematic behavior stops, Illinois law allows a child to be secluded for up to 30 minutes more.

Children are being locked away, alone and terrified, in schools across Illinois. Often, it's against the law. [Jennifer Smith Richards, Jodi S. Cohen and Lakeidra Chavis/Propublica]