Experts may not agree, but one mom defends 'isolation booths'

Experts may not agree, but one mom defends 'isolation booths' »Play Video
The isolation booth at Mint Valley Elementary School in Longview, Wash.

PORTLAND, Ore. – There's not necessarily agreement among experts about using isolation rooms for children like the one in a Longview, Wash. school that has sparked controversy.

According to the Longview School District, the isolation room it uses for eight or nine special education students at Mint Valley Elementary School is therapeutic and helps calm them down.

This became an issue after one mother, whose child is not in the special education program, posted pictures of the room at the school. The outrage from many who said they believe the rooms are harmful to children was immediate.

Most of the experts KATU News spoke to Wednesday said they believe the rooms can be a valuable tool. But like any other tool, it's valuable only if you know how to use it.

Earlier this year, Oregon schools were given the option of using seclusion rooms, which some call safe rooms, but with specific restrictions.

"Seclusion can only be used if other, less invasive measures have been tried, and they have been rendered ineffective or the student continues to escalate to a point where now they become potentially harmful to themselves or others,” said Michael Mahoney with the Oregon Department of Education.

But a Salem psychologist who co-authored a book on seclusion-and-restraint issues for kids argues the rooms should go away.

"What happens with a seclusion room, it becomes a real easy place to put somebody, lock the door and walk away. And that's just the opposite of what that child is really needing," said Tim Murphy, with Bridgeway Recovery Services.

The Autism Society of Oregon thinks the rooms can be a valuable tool if used properly.

"If they're not used appropriately, they go from being helpful to being punishment and traumatizing to a child. And that's what you want to avoid," said Tobi Rates with the society.

Some moms say the rooms can be beneficial, but others disagree

When 9-year-old Adam Howard was put in a Vancouver school's isolation room earlier this year it wasn't a big surprise to the mother of this autistic child.

"They can be disruptive, but again, this is a special-needs child. It's something that kind of goes with his disorder," said Adam's mother, Heather.

But when Adam went into a room like the one at Mint Valley Elementary several times for 20-to-30 minutes at a time, Heather pulled her son out of that school.

"There needs to be a cutoff where we say, 'this is not working anymore, let's try something else,'" she said.

But another mother whose son has spent time in an isolation booth said her son is better for the experience.

Tawnya Clark said her developmentally disabled son used the isolation booth for six years. She credits the booth for helping him deal with his aggression.

"He's assaulted teachers in the past – staff, students," she said.

Clark said her son Howard's aggression was so severe she gave permission to his Vancouver school to place him inside an isolation booth like the one at Mint Valley Elementary.

But sometimes Howard made the decision himself.

"He goes into it just to be left alone because things are too noisy, too bright," Clark said.

Howard hasn't stepped inside a booth in more than a year, saying he no longer needs it. He doesn't feel he was mistreated or abused. In fact, he calls it a "safe room."

"It's not a punishment; it's just a place to go away and to avoid anger and stuff," he said.

That's why Clark not only defends the isolation booth but she challenges other parents to avoid rushing to judgment.

"If you don't have all the facts and you don't understand why and how they're used, then you need to find out," she said.

But Sara Vanzee, co-founder of the School of Autism in Northeast Portland, said she would not want her autistic child to go into one of the booths. She's also a teacher and said she wouldn't put a child in them.

She said she thinks it's too easy for teachers to send kids like her 10-year-old son, Elijah, into the isolation booth rather than take the time to acknowledge their needs and feelings.

"I think to be locked in a confined space when you're that overwhelmed is not helpful, and it's hurtful," Vanzee said.

But Clark said it's not always about the person in the booth. Sometimes it's about protecting everyone else.

"When it comes to safety, I don't want to see someone else's kid get hurt because my son can't control his aggression," she said.

Clark says her son's behavior has greatly improved in the time since he last used the booth, and he's made the honor roll twice.

The group Washington Autism Advocacy posted guidelines Wednesday on their Facebook page about seclusion rooms.

It reads, in part, "Every effort should be made to prevent the need for the use of seclusion. ... Teachers and personnel should be trained regularly on the appropriate use of effective alternatives to seclusion and restraints and every effort should be made to use positive behavioral strategies to prevent the need for the use of seclusion. Seclusion should never be used as a punishment, as a means of coercion, or retaliation, or as a convenience."

A few other districts in the Portland area use these rooms. Hillsboro schools use "specialized programs" with safe rooms.

The Reynolds School District uses safe rooms but only at a "therapeutic treatment school" called Four Corners.

Portland schools have treatment classrooms with desks bolted down but no padded booths.

The Battle Ground School District has four schools with "calming rooms" or "quiet rooms." They are all in classrooms for special education students with significant behavioral concerns.