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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Lawmakers Examine Use Of School 'Seclusion Cells'

Chris Lehman
Northwest News Network

SALEM, Ore. - When kids get severely out of control in class, some schools place the students in a "seclusion cell." It's sort of a "time-out" room where kids can calm down without posing a risk to themselves or others.

A measure moving through the Oregon legislature would ban the use of the starkest version of these cells. But some mental health advocates say the bill doesn't go far enough.

Few people can captivate a legislative hearing like Jared Harrison. The soft-spoken seventh grader from Eugene has AD/HD. He kept members of the House Education Committee transfixed as he described what it was like to be put in a seclusion room. It's something Jared says happened to him on a regular basis when he was younger.

"I thought that that was school," he said. "I didn't know any better. I thought that that was the normal thing, that's how everybody was treated. But still, in the back of my head, I didn't think that was right."

Harrison came to this committee at the invitation of its chair, Democrat Sara Gelser.

"When you went into the seclusion room, when you were — and you used the phrase thrashing about — did going into the seclusion room help you feel more calm?" she asked Jared.

"Of course not," he replied. "I mean, when you have two adults dragging you into a room, and locking the door behind you, and you're just a little kid and you don't know what's going on, you're not going to be calm."

The use of seclusion rooms in schools is strictly regulated in Oregon. And Gelser wants to tighten the rules on what kind of seclusion cells could be used. Her bill would ban freestanding seclusion units, which some opponents say are akin to putting a child into a box.

Some mental health experts say the what the room looks like is beside the point. Caroline Fisher, head of child psychiatry at Good Samaritan Medical Center in Corvallis, says the experience can be traumatic to a child already facing mental health issues.

"I don't want to say that there's no situation where seclusion is acceptable, but I have to say that the little seclusion room -- whether it's a free-standing cell or a slightly larger kind-of built-in seclusion room -- the experience is a bad one most of the time."

But it's not clear whether any of the freestanding seclusion units that would be banned under the measure are actually used in Oregon. No one in the education community I spoke with seemed to think so.

Committee Chair Gelser says she saw one in a Portland elementary school. I went to check it out myself. It's at Pioneer School, which serves students with severe behavioral and mental health issues.

Inside the seclusion cell at Pioneer School, there is a window that I can look outside. The room is wide enough that I can barely touch both walls if I spread my arms completely out.

Pioneer School administrator Mike LaFramboise says the rooms are used once or twice a week, but only as a last resort.

"If a student were to continue to hit, kick, bite or spit, and we've had to put our hands on them for a long period of time, and it's looking like that isn't going to calm itself back down, we will use a seclusion room," he says.

The seclusion rooms at Pioneer are smaller rooms located inside of a larger room. It’s not entirely clear whether these would actually be banned under the proposed legislation. Either way, LaFramboise says isolation is a necessary — and in some cases, preferred — tool. Especially for students with a history of physical and sexual abuse.

"The chance of them actually calming down with an adult physically restraining them is pretty small. And it's fairly traumatizing to them," says LaFramboise. "So in that case the seclusion rooms are used a little sooner than we would with a different student."

And some special education administrators say if the rooms were removed altogether, it would mean they simply couldn’t serve some of the most challenging students.

"I don't want to send students to outside placements or home-school them because they can't be safe at school" says Danielle Sheldrake, Director of Special Education in the Beaverton School District.

Sheldrake had opposed the seclusion bill but now says it wouldn’t apply to any of the 18 seclusion rooms in the Beaverton district.

On the Web:

HB 2756-A: Seclusion cell ban - Oregon Legislature