Tell me this doesn’t sound like something from an ethically questionable experiment from the early days of psychology: a “seclusion room.” If primate research centers decided to quarter chimps in small, enclosed and uncomfortable spaces when they misbehaved, PETA would probably be up in arms.
Children, on the other hand, are apparently a different story. According to an article in this week’s Capital Times entitled, “Should schools use seclusion rooms, restraints for difficult kids?” a majority of public schools in Madison now use seclusion rooms — quiet rooms where children are sent after engaging in what is deemed unacceptably disruptive behavior.
As described in the Times article, these rooms have become more widely used in the past decade as many children that would previously have been schooled at home or at a “psychiatric institution” due to various mental illnesses or developmental issues are now being “mainstreamed” into public schools. The result of this is that public schools, many with insufficient resources to address these children’s problems, may resort to crude methods of keeping these kids in line — hence, seclusion rooms.
The fact that forcibly ostracizing children from their peers is usually not very good for the psyche is not a particularly new or progressive notion — when was the last time the phrase “left out” had a positive connotation? And while it is understandable that schools lacking enough well-trained special education staff and resources face a clear challenge in meeting the demands of the increasing number of special needs students, the use of potentially psychologically damaging — and, dare I say, downright regressive — means to control these kids is unacceptable and inexcusable. While it is one thing to give a child a quiet place to calm down, perhaps in the company of a teacher or staffer, it is another to physically force students into these rooms against their will, as school staff have been known to do.
If the lack of resources for some special needs students is so striking that there is a perceived need to control these children through forced isolation, there is obviously a larger issue that needs to be addressed. Though some may not agree with parents’ choices to mainstream special ed children, the fact stands that there has been a 43 percent increase in the number of special education students in American schools, which explains the current disparity between supply and demand for these services.
Clearly, an effort must be made to address the rise in special ed enrollees, and one room schoolhouse-era discipline is definitely not the answer. The example of seclusion rooms aside, any method used to regulate student conduct should be grounded in an understanding of why certain behaviors are occurring and how they can be meaningfully and productively addressed. Thus, there is a definite need for policies that mandate the expansion of special needs programs to suit growing demand. For instance, since the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Act, all special education instructors must possess a bachelor’s degree, as well as certification from the state in which they will work, in order to practice in the field. This is a step in the right direction, but should be seen only as the beginning of a much larger effort.
Policymakers and schools should see the increase in mainstreaming as an opportunity to improve the classroom experience for all students, and not as a burden of how to “deal with” children with needs that diverge from the mean. The emphasis should therefore be on making classrooms a place where all children can integrate with and learn from one another, which means making a sincere effort to meet the needs of all students.
Hannah Shtein ([email protected]) is a ssenior majoring in philosophy.