Legislators urge Portland school to comply with seclusion cell law

Legislators urge Portland school to comply with seclusion cell law »Play Video
The seclusion rooms at Pioneer School in Portland.

PORTLAND, Ore. – Six state legislators sent a letter to the superintendent and board members of Portland Public Schools on Friday urging that a school within the district comply with a new law prohibiting the use of seclusion cells.

The seclusion cells in question are at Pioneer School. The district says it thinks its seclusion cells don't fall under the new law and are not outlawed. But the district isn’t completely sure, so it wants the Oregon Department of Education to weigh in before it rips out something taxpayers paid for and, in its experience, serves a useful purpose.

The letter to the district was prompted by a KATU News story Thursday that revealed Pioneer had not yet removed its seclusion cells as required by Sept. 1 and didn't plan on doing so until it received guidance from the state. Additionally, the Oregon Department of Education wasn’t aware that the school was keeping the cells until KATU News told it about it Thursday.

After KATU's story, the school district sent a letter to the state, asking for it to decide what's legal.

Pioneer teaches children with special needs, some of whom have severe behavior issues. The district says its seclusion cells are used as a last resort.

The law bans seclusion cells and defines them as freestanding, self-contained units. The rooms at Pioneer are seven feet by seven feet, and they have their own ventilation systems. The district says its cells are built into the structure and share walls with the building.

"We understand people of reason of good faith may have a different thought of how a law can be interpreted," said Robb Cowie, a Portland Public Schools spokesman. "So we are not going to use the rooms this school year until we get further guidance from the Oregon Department of Education about whether those rooms would be prohibited or may need some modification."

But one of Thursday's letter writers and chief sponsor of the seclusion cell law, Rep. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, said the new law was crafted to specifically target seclusion cells like the ones at Pioneer.

"We worked hard to craft a bill that did not preclude all seclusion or time out, but instead narrowly targeted the stark, penitentiary style cells we saw at Pioneer School," the lawmakers wrote.

The lawmakers went on to point out the numerous times the cells at Pioneer School were mentioned during legislative committee hearings and floor debates.

"It's troubling Portland never contacted the Oregon Department of Education if they have questions about this prior to yesterday given the many conversations we had with Portland about this bill," Gelser told KATU News by phone Friday.

According to the district, the doors to the cells will be removed Tuesday before school starts Wednesday as proof the district won’t use the rooms.

The new law doesn't set up any penalties for a district that defies it.

New standards for seclusion rooms are planned (click to watch story)

While seclusion cells have been banned, seclusion rooms still exist, and for those, new standards are coming.

A mother emailed KATU photos (at right) of a seclusion room on Thursday night after its news report on seclusion rooms. She said her child has special needs and has been put in the seclusion room that she thinks looks like a prison cell.

She noted the stark walls, concrete floors and a single bench. She wanted to know what the regulations are for these rooms.

According to Oregon's Department of Education, there are no rules on the books right now. So depending on where your child goes to school, there's a wide range of what the rooms could look like.

However, ODE is in the process of creating guidelines based on the Oregon Health Authority's guidelines for addiction and mental health.

The new standards could look like the following:

Rooms that are newly built must be a minimum of 64 square feet and there must be enough room for three adults to move freely around. In fact, one person should be able to lie down.

The room must also:

  • Not have any exposed or sharp objects.
  • The walls, floors, and ceilings must be solidly and smoothly constructed.
  • Any windows must be made of shatterproof glass.
  • And the room must contain no furniture, except for a fireproof mattress or mat for comfort.

It's unclear if the guidelines are child-specific.

KATU News sent the concerned mother's picture of the seclusion room to an official at Oregon's Health Authority to see if the room would fall within the new guidelines. KATU News is still waiting on a response.

The Oregon Department of Education is working on a guideline proposal for seclusion rooms and plans to be done within the next month or two. The public will be able to comment.

The new guidelines are expected to be ready by 2014 -15 school year.

KATU News reporter Chelsea Kopta contributed to this report.

The letter to Portland Public Schools:

Date:  August 30, 2013

Members of the Portland School Board and Superintendent Carole Smith

Rep. Sara Gelser, Chair, House Education Committee
Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, Vice Chair, House Education Committee and Member, Ways and Means Subcommittee on Education
Rep. Betty Komp, Co-Chair, Ways and Means Subcommittee on Education
Rep. Lew Frederick, Member Ways and Means Subcommittee on Education
Rep. John Huffman, Member, House Education Committee and Vice Chair, House Committee on Higher Education and Workforce Development
Rep. David Gomberg, Member, House Education Committee and Vice Chair, House Committee on Human Services and Housing
We are writing to request your assistance in bringing Portland Public Schools into compliance with Oregon law as it relates to the use of seclusion in Oregon public schools.  As you may have heard in media reports, Portland Public Schools has decided to keep its seclusion cells at Pioneer School despite the passage of House Bill 2756 earlier this year.  The bill became effective when the Governor signed the bill in April.
HB 2756, which was sponsored by the House Education Committee, prohibits any use of self contained, freestanding seclusion cells in Oregon public schools effective upon passage.  It requires the removal of any seclusion cells that were being used for that purpose from all classrooms by July 1 and from all public school premises by September 1 of this year-- which is tomorrow.  It also prohibits districts from keeping, acquiring, building or purchasing such cells.
HB 2756 was written in response to a tour taken of Pioneer School in the fall of 2012 by Rep. Lew Frederick and then co-chairs of the House Education Committee, Rep. John Huffman and Rep. Sara Gelser.  We worked hard to craft a bill that did not preclude all seclusion or time out, but instead narrowly targeted the stark, penitentiary style cells we saw at Pioneer School.  At the time of our visit, Pioneer was using these cells for children as young as 6.  In the 2011-12 school year, elementary aged children were secluded over 300 times at Pioneer.  There are only 7 K-6 classrooms at Pioneer.  For comparison, in the 11-12 school year, there were only 20 instances of seclusion in the entire Tigard-Tualitan School District.  It is important to note that the cells used at Pioneer are in violation of several of the standards required for seclusion spaces regulated by the Oregon Health Authority.  The Pioneer cells would not be permitted for use in any hospital, residential setting, or mental health treatment facility or children in the state of Oregon even prior to passage of HB 2756.
The Pioneer School cells were referenced multiple times during committee and floor debates, and photos of the Pioneer cells were used to illustrate what seclusion cells look like.   The Legislative Counsel who drafted the bill was also provided photographs of the cells at Pioneer so she could be sure her language encompassed them.  She affirmed to members of the Legislature that it was the interpretation of the Legislative Counsel that "freestanding, self contained unit" was a phrase that applies to the cells located at Pioneer.   This is because the units are not integral to the structure of the building, and have their own walls, ceiling and ventilation.  The cells are self contained units within existing classrooms, and can be removed without causing structural problems to the classrooms in which they are located.
The focus on the cells at Pioneer was clear throughout the Legislative process.  During the House Floor debate on March 6, speaker after speaker reiterated that the bill specifically targets the cells at Pioneer School. 

Rep. Huffman rose twice that day to reiterate that the bill includes the cells at Pioneer.  Rep Huffman said:
“I had the opportunity to visit some schools in the Portland area a few months back with (Rep. Gelser and Rep. Frederick), and we saw a couple of these small portable seclusion type rooms.  I just wanted to get it on the record that the legislative intent around the bill and what we are trying to do in regard to the portable or modular seclusion rooms.  It is not acceptable for these rooms to be screwed to the wall or bolted to the wall and say they are not fitting under these guidelines….    Our intent is that if these small rooms are screwed to a wall or something, it doesn’t matter where they are placed—they can hang them from the ceiling.  They still are not acceptable.”
He rose again a few minutes later to emphasize the inclusion of the cells at Pioneer:
“I wanted to bring out to all of you what the intent was on the seclusion cells.  I did want to get on the record and say it again on this bill that the smaller seclusion cells that are considered portable or modular or described as a closet, those are still considered off limits even if you screw them to the wall, bolt them to the wall, or hang them from the ceiling.   Those are intended to not be allowed anymore.  The good representative from Corvallis/Philomath is going to get up and speak and maybe describe the cell she visited one day in Portland.”
Rep. Lew Frederick made the following comments:
“I was on that same tour with [Rep. Huffman and Rep. Gelser].  I don’t think it is possible to give you a real sense of how stark those rooms are until you see them… If you are standing there and you are looking at a room like this and you realize that a 5, 6 year old is going to be put in this particular room at some point, it is hard to believe that can take place in that way.  These are not rooms.  These are little cells.  And that is not how we treat our kids.  I just ask that you vote for this bill and recognize that we are taking a step towards a humane and effective way of working with some youngsters that need some extra help.  This is not giving them that extra help."
Rep. Gelser concluded her comments by referencing Pioneer stating: "Once the Governor signs this bill schools will continue to be able to use seclusion rooms, but those students at that school that we visited will no longer need to go into those seclusion cells."
The Pioneer Seclusion cells were also specifically referenced in the Senate.  If you follow this link, you will see that photographs of the Pioneer Cells were used to describe what would be prohibited with passage of the bill.  The Pioneer cells are depicted in the first and fourth photos.  The middle two photos are of a seclusion cell in Washington state:
Just yesterday, the principal of Pioneer indicated that power had been kept on to a pair of the cells to be used occasionally for older students.  We understand that since that time Superintendent Smith followed up with him to ensure that the cells are not used at the school for any students.  However, the very presence of the prohibited cells at the school increases the risk of their use.  Indeed, David Williams confirmed in an email that students had been secluded in these cells on three different occasions since the effective date of the bill.  This is certainly an improvement (they were used over 100 times between September 2012 and January 2013 at Pioneer), but the fact remains that it is in violation of the letter of the law, and most certainly of the spirit of the law, that any students were secluded in the prohibited cells after the effective date of the bill.  Members of the Legislature-- particularly the three members who visited the cells at Pioneer-- were very clear that this bill was written in order to eliminate the cells at Pioneer and others like them around the state.
It is our understanding that administrators at PPS are now arguing that these are "rooms" rather than "cells."  The legislative record is clear that this bill was specifically inspired by the cells at Pioneer, and was written to eliminate them.  Even if someone can find a legalistic loophole to define the cells as rooms, we question whether that is appropriate given the very clear statements by a nearly unanimous legislature that these cells in particular were prohibited.   Is it appropriate for PPS to look for ways to violate the spirit (and likely the letter) of the law, when overwhelming testimony was offered about how harmful the practice of seclusion in these tiny cells is to students?  (For your reference, you can see the testimony of a child psychiatrist talking to the House Education Committee about the damage seclusion causes to kids here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGJERD1M6yw)
As fellow elected officials, we hope you will call upon your administration to come into compliance with the law immediately.  This is about the safety and dignity of Portland students who deserve far better than to be put inside 49 square foot cells, or to sit in rooms with cells they have been terrified to be locked inside.  We have scheduled an update on this issue for the September meeting of the House Education Committee, and we are hopeful the committee will be able to learn that PPS has complied with the law rather than spending the meeting asking the district why it has gone out of its way to defy it.
Please help ensure these cells are removed immediately as required by HB 2756.
Representative Sara Gelser
Representative Sherrie Sprenger
Representative Betty Komp
Representative John Huffman
Representative Lew Frederick
Representative David Gomberg

Rob Saxton, Deputy Superintendent, Oregon Department of Education
Cindy Hunt, Oregon Department of Education
Bob Joondeph and Joel Greenberg, Disability Rights Oregon
David Williams, Portland Public Schools

New standards for seclusion rooms are planned: