Improper Restraint: Schools Are Overusing Isolated Timeouts

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Society charges schools with the duty to provide all students the opportunity to learn in a safe and positive environment. However, newly released data shows that educators and administrators increasingly and inappropriately utilize seclusion — or “isolated timeouts” — to manage behavior. Isolated timeouts are not proven to effectively resolve behavioral issues, and some studies suggest they can actually be counterproductive. The growing reliance on such a harsh practice fails both individual students and school communities as a whole.

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) defines an isolated timeout as the “involuntary confinement of a student alone in a time out room or other enclosure outside the classroom without a supervising adult in the time out room or enclosure.” ISBE guidance permits this practice only when a student poses “imminent danger of serious physical harm because the student is unable to cease extreme physical aggression” (Illinois State Board of Education, 2020). In these very limited circumstances, a trained staff member is supposed to monitor the student every 15 minutes, and the student must remain in the room until their dangerous behavior ceases. As clearly stated, ISBE policies sanction seclusion only when a student’s behavior threatens someone’s safety, whether their own, a classmate’s, or a staff member’s. However, recently released data from the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights call into question whether this extreme measure is actually used for its intended purpose as a last resort.

Although there is limited evidence supporting seclusion as an effective behavior management technique, data confirms its widespread use. Indeed, the number of documented incidents has been growing both in Illinois and nationally. The latest data reported by the Department of Education, as reported by the Chicago Tribune, identifies 23,530 instances of seclusion and restraint use during the 2017–18 school year, up 35% from 17,403 incidents in 2015. In that same 2017–18 school year, schools employed seclusion specifically as an intervention 10,776 times, an increase of more than 50% from the 2015 federal data review. This uptick likely results from either the misapplication of isolated timeouts as a behavior management strategy, or their adoption as a form of punishment. A 2019 investigation by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica found that in a third of 2017-2018 documented cases, the student placed into seclusion did not pose a safety threat to other students or staff. However, not all instances of seclusion contained detailed enough reports to definitively conclude whether the actions leading to a student’s seclusion followed ISBE guidelines. The lack of detailed reporting in some instances of seclusion could potentially mean that there are more cases where seclusion was used for inappropriate disciplinary reasons. 

Demographic disparities in the data are additionally troubling. Of students with disabilities subjected to seclusion, 60% were white, 22% African American, and 9% Hispanic. Though the data does not suggest an inequitable distribution of seclusion by demographics, the disparities are more pronounced along gender lines. In the 2017-2018 year, male students constituted 84% of nationally documented seclusion cases. Students of color, particularly Black male students, are disproportionately likely to experience school discipline practices like suspensions and referrals to the office. It is therefore imperative that state and federal policymakers keep those equity issues at the heart of the decision-making process when considering how to reform seclusion mandates.

The proliferation of seclusion represents both a failure of schools to protect fundamental student rights and an undermining of the most basic school objective: to provide safe and positive learning environments for all students. The legal ramifications of these failings are especially concerning for special education students. Current special education law, particularly the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), favors what are called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) systems over reactive strategies like seclusion. When educators unnecessarily place special education students into seclusion, their civil rights under the IDEA are violated. Additionally, some studies indicate that seclusion is not a sustainable way to address behavioral issues in schools. Seclusion may actually prevent students from developing strong self-management and coping skills, which often leads to worsening problematic behavior (Walker and Pinkelman, 2018).

As seclusion use steadily increases, state and federal lawmakers have been exploring legislative remedies. In 2019, state representative Jonathan Carroll sought to amend the Illinois school code to prohibit seclusion in schools by introducing HB3975 in the Illinois General Assembly. In 2018, US representative Donald Beyer introduced the latest version of the Keeping All Students Safe Act, a sort of national counterpart to HB3975. The act similarly proposed the prohibition of seclusion in federally funded elementary and secondary schools and Head Start agencies. The Keeping All Students Safe Act presently remains under review. Consideration of HB3975 stalled due to COVID-19 interrupting the last Illinois legislative session.

Despite lawmakers’ inability to achieve a legislative solution either in Illinois or nationally, the use of seclusion as a punishment deserves to be explicitly banned. Prohibiting the punitive application of seclusion — and imposing penalties on school districts that violate such a prohibition — would benefit students and schools by promoting adherence to positive behavioral intervention systems and protecting student rights. 

In the absence of state or federal intervention, individual school districts should reassess their seclusion practices and adjust their procedures on the basis of data. Following the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica investigations, the Chicago Board of Education voted in favor of updating Chicago Public Schools’ policy. This policy allows the use of seclusion only as a therapeutic practice or as a means of maintaining a safe learning environment. It prohibits seclusion as a punishment and requires documentation to CPS and ISBE. Until state or federal lawmakers can come to a consensus on universal seclusion policy, school districts must act independently, as Chicago Public Schools did, to mandate prohibitions and promote accountability. Banning the use of seclusion except in the narrowest of cases could give schools the opportunity to focus their attention towards evidence-based alternatives, such as restorative practices or the integration of trauma informed social-emotional learning. With these alternative choices, schools could foster a safe learning environment, while pre-empting the need to use seclusion and all forms of inappropriate, ineffective disciplinary practices.

Walker, Virginia L., and Sarah E. Pinkelman. 2018. “Minimizing restraint and seclusion in schools: a response to Beaudoin and Moore.” Intellectual and developmental disabilities 56, no. 3: 165-170.

Trader, Barbara, Jennifer Stonemeier, Tricia Berg, Christen Knowles, Michelle Massar, Manuel Monzalve, Sarah Pinkelman, Rhonda Nese, Traci Ruppert, and Robert Horner. 2017. “Promoting inclusion through evidence-based alternatives to restraint and seclusion.” Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities 42, no. 2: 75-88.

Smith Richards, Jennifers, Jodi Cohen, and Lakeidra Chavis. 2019. “The Quiet Rooms.” ProPublica Illinois, November 19. 

“Permanent Regulations for the Use of Time Out, Isolated Time Out, and Physical Restraint: Guidance and Frequently Asked Questions.” Illinois State Board

“H.R.7124 – 115th Congress (2017-2018): Keeping All Students Safe Act.”, November 15, 2018.

“Bill Status of HB3975 .” Illinois General Assembly – Bill Status for 3975, November 21, 2019. 

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