What does it take, to justify putting a child in a small, empty, locked, dark “time-out” room in a school, when they’d otherwise be playing with their peers, or learning in the classroom? The answer you’ll get most often, from those who have even the slightest understanding of how controversial this practice is, is “the child must be a danger to themselves, to others, or to property” to be secluded in this manner. The answer should be “nothing justifies it.” Perhaps the best answer is, that it takes a lack of knowledge, lack of training, and a lack of basic empathy, to be able to justify the practice.
It’s bad enough to use the practice on children who are capable of explaining themselves and who are able to regulate their behaviour in the response to threats of “time-out”; it is so much worse to use such seclusion as a form of punishment for children who are suffering from anxiety and have genuine difficulty with self-control and self-regulation. All it achieves in this situation, is potentially more anxiety, fear, depression, and trauma.
Reading the recently released 52-page report by Terri Johnstone, for the Ministry of Education, on the use of just such a room at Miramar Central School in Wellington, you’re given an excellent example of how to misuse and abuse seclusion in this way. Miramar Central School has become the poster-child of time-out abuse, and, in my opinion, it fully deserves all the bad press. It deserves to have a complete overhaul of top-level staff that have been aware of and allowing this to go on, and it deserves to have its student roll numbers collapse in the face of what it has done – and what it has not done.
Miramar School has, evidently, been keeping incomplete and inconsistent records around use of this terrible time-out room and behaviour plans involving this time-out room. It has not been advising parents when the room has been used, and it has been going against its own written policies on when and how the room is to be used. There have been directly contradictory reports from staff on when and how it has been used. It’s one thing to have such a room available in a school, it’s a next-level thing to use it in the ways that it has; it has been used as a threat for non-compliant behaviour, it has been used as punishment, it has been used in many ways that fall short of the child being a danger to themselves, to others, or to property.
It has been used for long stretches of time that would test the sanity of an adult. If I lock you in a small, dark, empty room for the next 25 minutes, would you emerge magically calm, or might you be angry you were locked away, more anxious than you were before, perhaps confused as it why it was done to you, unsure of when it was going to end or what you had to do to make it stop. All ways that a child who has intellectual disabilities might experience the situation, when they have trouble with sensory-input or communication difficulties which are classic of children with autism.
When what had been happening at Miramar Central School came to light, instead of the school making clear expressions of shame and regret, we got excuses: The Ministry of Education knew and approved of the room’s existence, they said (the Ministry isn’t so convinced, and Hekia Parata has strongly attacked the practice); the room’s use will be phased out now (instead of completely halted and never used again – though they’ve finally removed the door and said they won’t use the room anymore now that the report is out); it was used for when the child was a danger to themselves, others, or to property (except that their own teachers have admitted they were using it for a much wider range of behaviours and purposes).
We’re told in Johnstone’s comprehensive report that the school staff believed they were acting in the best interests of the children when they used the room; I find this so sad. Were they really that deluded, would they really do this to their own children? If they were so positive it was done in childrens’ best interests, why weren’t they telling those children’s parents when the room had been used, why weren’t they keeping accurate and consistent records of it’s use, and why didn’t they seek prior approval for its use from the children’s parents as they were meant to have done? I struggle with this, I really do.
What alternative do teachers have, when faced with potentially and actually dangerous or disobedient behaviour, other than locking a kid in a room? What they could have done, and should have done, is also in-part outlined in the report. They could have and should have tried to understand antecedent behaviours and tried to address and minimise the triggers, they could and should have created and implemented behavioral plans for each child with such behaviours, in consultation and with the approval and sign-off of those children’s parents. They could and should have been consulting experts in behaviour therapies and alternative positive behavioural approaches. They had options, they had not exhausted those options. Instead they used a locked room.
A locked room does more than isolate a dangerous child. It embarrasses. It disempowers. It makes you feel unwanted, small, frustrated. It leaves you feeling forgotten. It excludes you from play, from friends, from the associated opportunities to create and build on social skills. It excludes you from learning – from the very reason they’re at the school in the first place.
But, thankfully, you get to go home, at the end of the day. Even if you lack the communication skills to tell your loved ones what has happened to you that day, you get to go home. Unless you grow up as an autistic adult in this lovely country of ours, and then “home” can become the new eternal locked seclusion, like for poor Ashley Peacock. You see, if you have schools that don’t care enough to understand and work meaningfully with our young autistic children, how can you magically expect the state services to care the way they can and should with our adult autistic children? And what happens when us parents, are no longer around to be their voices and fight their fights? We need to bring attention to this now, and loudly, and constantly, because the change needed to stop the seclusion, exclusion, and excuses, is needed across society and government services, and not just in our classrooms.
On that point, I want to express my heart-felt gratitude that we have someone at the New Zealand Herald who has consistently and loudly been this voice for us, where and whenever she can. Notice that the reporter of these stories on Miramar Primary School that shoved this issue into the spotlight, and that the reporter giving us updates on Ashley Peacock, is Kirsty Johnston. Kirsty also allowed me to share my own experiences with special education and school services, with a national audience through the NZ Herald, last year. We are lucky to have such a compassionate and thorough reporter keeping an eye out for our concerns in the area of education, special education, and disabilities.
The Ministry of Education is due to release its official recommendations on seclusion and restraint practices in schools, before the end of the year; I’ll be keeping an eye out for that and adding it to the resources list below once it has been released too.
Some Key Resources:
- “Seclusion expert to investigate detention in New Zealand” (re Ashley Peacock) NZ Herald, Jun 8, 2016
- “Family “dismayed” over Ashley Peacock cottage proposal” NZ Herald, Sep 29, 2016
- “11 year-old locked in “dark cell” 13 times in 9 days yelled “I’ll be good, I’ll be good” (the write-up of this story made me want to cry, so hard to read as a parent) NZ Herald, Oct 8, 2016
- “Angry parents demand accountability over school’s “time-out” room” NZ Herald, Oct 10, 2016
- “Ministry to release Miramar school seclusion room investigation report” (including links to radio interviews, and another shocking story of abuse of a seclusion room in 2012) stuff.co.nz, Oct 13, 2016
- “Ombudsman launches investigation of seclusion rooms in schools” NZ Herald , Oct 14, 2016
- Investigation into the use of seclusion at Miramar Central School, Ministry of Education page with link to the PDF report “Investigation of Parent Complaint at Miramar Central School Wellington” by Terri Johnstone, Sep 2016
New resources added since publishing this post:
- ““We mucked up”: Miramar Central School representative” – an excellent interview by John Campbell, with a board spokesman from the school. Very emotional. Radio New Zealand, Oct 14, 2016.
- “The Miramar Central scandal lays bare a cavalier culture at the Ministy of Education” by Giovanni Tiso, at The Spinoff. A great post on the specific issue of Miramar Central School, as well as wider concerns about the Ministry of Education. Oct 14, 2015.
- “IHC says it’s time to shut seclusion rooms for good” Press release by IHC about the use of seclusion rooms in the wake of the Miramar controversy. Oct 14, 2016.