Time to re-examine quiet rooms in N.J. schools | Editorial

Published: Oct. 10, 2022

Locking away a disabled school child in a small padded room as easy punishment is inherently appalling, and some states have actually banned it.

But as long as New Jersey continues to use “quiet rooms” to separate violent or disruptive kids from their peers in schools, two things still need to happen: Parents must be informed immediately if their child is placed in a “seclusion space,” and there must be more detailed data about when, where, and why these techniques are applied.

A bill that passed the Senate Education Committee last week does the former, but it falls short with the latter, and we hope lawmakers make the effort to bake more accountability into the system.

As a chilling NJ Advance Media report from June revealed, some districts have abused these quiet rooms for years, terrifying kids by locking them away for minor infractions, and federal data shows that a disproportionately high percentage are children with disabilities and minority students. And while it’s conceivable that some form of a timeout room might be needed under dangerous circumstances, current practices were unacceptable and needed the attention of lawmakers.

So the measure proposed by Sen. Vin Gopal includes some important and overdue components, such as requiring all schools to notify parents by phone or text as soon as their child is put in a seclusion room, and then follow it up with a full written report of the incident within 48 hours.

It is also crucial that the Department of Education will now collect and publish data on how often restraints or quiet rooms are used on kids with disabilities.

But that data – which will include key demographics such as race, gender and age -- is going to be broken down by county. This will enable the same deceptions to persist, as experts point out that some of our largest districts routinely underreport how often seclusion techniques are used in their schools.

“The data collection is welcome, but if it’s just county-based, it doesn’t really tell us too much,” said Peg Kinsell, the director of the SPAN Parent Advocacy Network. “It would be much more informative to have this data broken down by school district. If it was up to me, it would be broken down by school building.”

It would also help to know the circumstances under which restraint and seclusion are applied. The law says they should be used “only in an emergency in which the student is exhibiting behavior that places the student or others in immediate physical danger.”

But not everyone is following the letter of the law, so Kinsell believes the new bill needs enhanced accountability.

“There are districts that report zero incidents, yet we know from the families that it’s just not true,” she said. “So I would not only want numbers to be reported, I would want the superintendent of every district to sign their data report to confirm those numbers. There needs to be accountability.”

Gopal, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, agrees that transparency must be a priority.

“This is just a start,” he said Friday. “We may go much further – like other states have – but this is a start to see where we are at.”

Indeed, more changes may follow, because Gopal knows there is no adequate way to assuage the trauma of a child who is needlessly restrained and placed in seclusion. The same may be true of classmates who have to witness it.

So educators and lawmakers must demand more data and use it to inform the changes they make to this policy, because there should be alternatives to keeping all kids safe without abusing the kind of discipline most often associated with prisons.

 

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-10-11 03:20:46 -0700