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Illinois taking emergency steps to end child isolation punishments

Governor J.B. Pritzker has directed the Illinois State Board of Education to take emergency action and stop schools from isolating children behind locked doors as punishment. The Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois published an investigation of the punishment, which may amount to torture.

The investigation revealed that kids are frequently locked alone in isolated "timeout rooms" for hours. The reporters found evidence that children were crying, screaming, begging to be freed, prying at the doors and even ramming their heads into walls.

"Please someone respond to me. ... I'm sorry I ripped the paper. I overreacted. ... Please just let me out. Is anyone out there?" said one student during a locked timeout.

For a kid, especially with a disability, isolation may amount to torture

The reporters used school records to show that, every day, Illinois kids were being put in locked timeout rooms alone. This can be extremely traumatizing for children. In fact, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for torture has determined that solitary confinement of vulnerable people, such as juveniles, can amount to torture and recommended that it be completely banned in most cases.

But ProPublica and the Tribune report not only that isolation is being used to punish children in Illinois, but also that it was often done illegally.

Currently, Illinois law allows children to be put in a locked, isolated room only when they pose a safety threat to themselves or other people. After examining records of over 20,000 instances of isolated timeouts, however, the reporters found that there was no safety reason in more than a third of cases where the reason for the timeout was available.

Moreover, the majority of kids who were put in isolation had disabilities such as autism or emotional problems. School staff do sometimes struggle with children's disruptive or even violent behavior, but only an actual threat to themselves or others justifies isolation under current law.

The emergency rules the Board of Education has now submitted would require all public and private schools to submit reports to the board within 48 hours of placing any student in an isolated timeout. Schools will also have to report on their use of these punishments over the current and previous two school years.

Timeout rooms would still be allowed, but they could not be locked and an adult would have to sit in the room with the child.

The board says it will take action against schools that have been using locked isolation rooms improperly.

Schools are meant to be an environment for learning. It can be challenging to teach some students, but extreme punishments like locked isolation rooms must never be used to teach a lesson.

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