This story is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune.
Illinois schools reported putting students into seclusion at least 10,776 times in the 2017-18 school year — up more than 50% from the last time districts sent seclusion data to the federal government, two years earlier.
The number of school districts that reported using seclusion, the practice of forcibly isolating a student in a small room or other space, also increased to 138 from 133, underscoring how entrenched the practice has been in the state.
The U.S. Department of Education also collects data on the use of physical restraint, and 286 Illinois school districts reported restraining their students, also up from the 2015-16 school year. The figures include only public school districts and regional special education cooperatives, not private schools.
Over the last year, in response to a November 2019 investigation by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois, the state took several actions to discourage schools from relying on seclusion and physical restraint in response to difficult student behavior. But advocates for students with disabilities say the most recent data offers evidence that the new restrictions need to be enforced and that stronger steps are needed.
“We are very concerned about this trend,” said Zena Naiditch, president and CEO of Chicago-based Equip for Equality, a federally appointed watchdog for people with disabilities. “Illinois already had the distinction as being the national leader for its extremely heavy reliance on these dangerous and traumatic practices. To see numbers increasing is a very serious development.”
Schools across the country submitted the 2017-18 data last year, at the same time the news organizations were reporting on seclusion and restraint for their investigation, “The Quiet Rooms.” That reporting examined 100 school districts’ use of these practices during the 2017-18 school year plus fall of 2018.
Though Illinois law at the time allowed schools to use seclusion and restraint only when students posed a danger to themselves or others, the investigation found widespread overuse and misuse of the practices. Records obtained by the news organizations showed that school workers regularly used seclusion and restraint to punish children for misbehavior, to force them to comply with commands or for being disrespectful.
Government officials swiftly responded to the investigation by banning locked seclusion, promising to investigate misuse and creating a data collection system. But longer-term reform efforts have stalled. Lawmakers vowed to further restrict the use of seclusion and restraint and ban some restraints, but they have not done so.
The Illinois State Board of Education mandated that school districts send the agency three years’ worth of reports that detailed each incident of restraint or seclusion, which Illinois calls isolated timeout. Before last November, there had been no state oversight of these practices despite a state law that required school districts to create the incident reports.
In response to questions from ProPublica Illinois and Tribune reporters, ISBE said it reviewed incident reports from about 700 school districts and programs and used the information to create a database of more than 66,000 incidents of seclusion and restraint from the 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years. A new Student Care Department, staffed with eight workers, is tasked with monitoring interventions and creating monthly reports on their use.
But the agency has yet to work with any school districts identified in the data as showing troubling patterns or to determine which districts failed to submit data at all. The department has opted not to take action against school workers, spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said. The agency has not yet reviewed the new federal data, she said.
“ISBE will identify school districts, special education cooperatives, and non-public special education entities for additional supports based on the data,” Matthews wrote in an email, and will ask them to consider “research-based actions to reduce the use of restrictive and traumatic procedures.”
State education officials had initially banned prone, or face-down, and supine, or face-up, restraints in the spring but then decided to allow them for at least this school year after pressure from a few private schools. More than 30 states ban prone restraints because they can restrict a child’s breathing.
“ISBE’s initial efforts were progressive and would have had a far-reaching impact on student health and safety,” Naiditch said. “But Illinois politics intervened and the school industry got the provisions watered down. We needed the governor to step up and empower ISBE to withstand this pressure. Then COVID hit, and with students learning from home, this issue lost its urgency.”
State Sen. Ann Gillespie, a Democrat from Arlington Heights, said a bill that would ban prone physical restraint and place more restrictions on schools that use isolated timeout is headed for consideration in the legislative veto session, which was to begin this week but has been pushed to January as COVID-19 cases spike statewide. A version of the bill was introduced in the spring, but it was tabled after the pandemic cut short the regular session.
The pending bill would restrict the use of seclusion and restraint and allow them only when there is an “imminent” danger of serious physical harm. It would also direct ISBE to sanction schools that don’t follow the state law on seclusion and restraint and would require schools to make a plan to reduce — and eventually eliminate — their reliance on the interventions.
Some schools have defended their use of seclusion and restraint and lobbied to continue using the interventions, saying they can’t serve students with challenging behaviors otherwise.
Alison Maley, with the Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance, said the group supports a ban on prone restraint and has provided input to lawmakers on other parts of the legislation with the hope “that we can come to an agreement.” The group works on behalf of school boards, administrators and principals.
Naiditch said the latest seclusion and physical restraint figures, part of the Education Department’s Civil Rights Data Collection, again show why state officials should see this as an urgent matter, as Illinois reported using the practices more than most states. The data shows that seclusion and restraint are disproportionately used on students with disabilities and on boys.
The latest data release shows Illinois public schools reported having secluded and restrained students at least 23,530 times during the 2017-18 school year, up from 17,403 two years earlier.
A Tribune/ProPublica Illinois analysis of the new federal data found that more than 100 districts reported an increase in the number of times they secluded students. That included the Northern Suburban Special Education District in Highland Park, which logged 552 incidents of seclusion and 704 incidents of restraint in the 2017-18 school year. The district served 129 students that year, according to the data.
An assistant superintendent for the district, Andy Piper, declined to answer questions about the increase. “We don’t have any response that we wish to provide,” he wrote in an email.
The Northwest Suburban Special Education Organization in Mount Prospect reported 1,170 restraint incidents, more than any other school district in Illinois and nearly double the number from the 2015-16 school year. The district also reported an increase in the use of seclusion, to 676 instances.
“A majority of our focus has been dealing with the pandemic, so at this time we do not have any information to share with you,” said Brad Carter, the district’s director for human resources and communications. Records previously obtained by the Tribune and ProPublica Illinois showed the district has used seclusion and restraint when students were physically aggressive, disruptive or disengaged.
Sixty Illinois districts reported using seclusion during the 2017-18 school year after reporting zero instances in the prior reporting period.
Those include Alton School District 11 in Madison County, which reported 226 seclusions involving 23 students. Suburban Chicago district Elmhurst 205 notified the department that it had secluded one student 132 times in the school year. And the tiny Tuscola district in Douglas County put five students in seclusion a total of 122 times, the data shows.
The Alton superintendent said the district’s previous report of no seclusion instances was an error, and a spokeswoman for the Elmhurst district declined to answer questions about its use of seclusion. Tuscola did not respond to a request for comment.
Some districts said they had not correctly reported their use of seclusion and restraint and have asked the Education Department if they can fix errors.
In Schaumburg District 54, for example, the district reported restraining students 880 times and secluding students 561 times, but district spokeswoman Terri McHugh said the numbers are actually higher.
The federal data also is incorrect for Urbana District 116, according to Assistant Superintendent Todd Taylor. The district reported 1,074 seclusion incidents, but Taylor wrote in an email that the correct number is 46. He said that reporters brought the error to the district’s attention and that officials are unsure how the error was made.
Chicago Public Schools reported three seclusion instances in 2017-18, even though seclusion has been banned at the district since 2008. District spokeswoman Emily Bolton said those incidents occurred in two Chicago charter schools, which are not subject to the district’s policies on addressing student behavior.
Because the COVID-19 pandemic closed so many schools last spring, the Education Department decided not to collect data from the 2019-20 school year.
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