Solitary confinement for students will continue: Oregon’s ‘isolation booths’

Isolation rooms used to place children in solitary confinement (Source: KATU News)
Isolation rooms used to place children in solitary confinement (Source: KATU News)
Isolation rooms used to place children in solitary confinement (Source: KATU News)

PORTLAND, OR — Last year, a parent’s outrage over a government school locking her child in a padded cell without her knowledge or permission caused so much outrage that a new state law was passed, prohibiting schools from purchasing or using free-standing “seclusion cells” or “isolation booths,” as they are called.  With the new law taking effect, some schools are scrambling for a way around the provisions, so they can continue to place students in solitary confinement at their discretion.

In November 2012, KATU News broke a story about the use of an isolation booth at Mint Valley Elementary School in Longview, WA.  Concerned parent, Ana Bate, said her son saw students being locked in the booth at school and was traumatized.

“[He was] thinking it was scary, it was abusive, are they gonna do this to me?” Bate said.

School administrators defended locking children in padded cells, saying that it had “therapeutic purposes” for some children.

“How come they’re not providing documentation about how this ‘therapeutic booth’ is beneficial?” said Bate. “Show me some real numbers. Show me something from the medical community that says more times than not and all the documentation that backs it up. Don’t tell me ‘well, their parents said we could do it.'”

“I have a 20-year-old daughter who’s actually been institutionalized, medicated heavily, ADD, ADHD, RAD, OCD, among other things,” Bate said. “I never had to have anybody put her in a box. I didn’t have any problems dealing with the situation, so I do know both sides.”

The outrage over the story grew, with the help of the alternative media.  And more stories came forth.

Jared Harrison, a 7th grader at the McCornack school in the Eugene district, testified in front of legislators that he was placed in an isolation room hundreds of times — “at least every day” — as a punishment for the smallest things.  His punishments began in the 1st grade, and continued for years.  Anything from not following directions, to throwing paper balls, could earn Jared time in the cell.

Jared’s confinement sessions were so frequent, and begun at such a young age, that he thought that spending time in the cell was part of a normal day at school.  So normal, that he never even thought to tell his mother about it.  To a child it had been normal, but to those hearing the testimony, the stories were shocking.

A free-standing isolation booth, now banned in Oregon (Source: KATU News)
A free-standing isolation booth, now banned in Oregon (Source: KATU News)

“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,” Harrison told lawmakers. “You’re not going to be calm. And I know no one else in the room was calm. They were all freaking out because their friend’s being locked in a room. It didn’t help the situation at all. It made it worse – much worse than it would’ve been if I had just sat in a timeout chair for five minutes.”

Jennifer Harrison, Jared’s mother, told lawmakers that these kind of isolation punishments were more commonly found in prisons and mental health facilities.

“I don’t think that schools are jails.  I hope they’re not,” said Jennifer Harrison.

By February 2013, a bill in Oregon was introduced to prevent these controversial measures from being used on students in their state.  Oregon’s House Bill 2756 prohibits government schools from purchasing, building or installing seclusion cells, and prohibits their use.  By April, it had been passed and signed by the governor.

The new law defined the cells as free-standing units — like the one used in Longview, WA — to avoid the unintended prohibition of using rooms in the school for normal purposes.

Therefore, in order to get around the new law, schools simply need to lock students in isolation rooms, instead of isolation booths.

And voilà!  A well-intentioned, albeit reactionary, law is being easily circumvented.  The same policy of locking children in solitary confinement will continue, as long as the cells are built-in to the building, rather than in free-standing booths.

An audit of records from Oregon earlier this year showed that eight school districts had used their isolation booths 791 times, reported  One Portland school had alone used theirs 100 times since the beginning of the school year.

Some of the newly outfitted isolation rooms were explored by KATU News.  Compliant with the new law, the solitary confinement will no longer be performed in a free-standing booth.  One school, Cherry Park, converted part of a locker room into isolation rooms for students.  Now there is an observation window, a light, and ventilation.

To see what the new cells will look like, view KATU’s coverage below.

Jared Harrison’s mother is right; isolation rooms belong in prisons, not schools.  But the parallels of between schools and prison go well beyond throwing children into solitary confinement for misbehavior.  The whole education system is modeled to achieve conformity and obedience.  Institutions are lined with live-feed cameras.  Students are subjected to warrantless searches and often forced to give urine. Police presence in schools is becoming more pervasive and lockers and backpacks can be sniffed with dogs.  Attendance is compulsory.  Students are having to carry RFID badges or give biometric identification.  Even the parking lots are subject to warrantless searches.  And that’s without even touching on the curriculum, which is very pro-statism.

As we see with the new law in Oregon, it is difficult to legislate even one aspect of the problem away, let alone all these prison-like characteristics.  Only your vigilance and public pressure can reverse these problems, but ultimately the system always retains the systemic problems created by its Prussian roots.  Many parents would just as soon not let the government raise their children for 12 years of their young lives, resorting to home schooling or carefully-chosen private schools.

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PLEASE NOTE:  Isolation rooms/booths are NOT isolated to Oregon & Washington. 

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