Illinois Schools Use of Seclusion and Restraint Increased in During the 2017-18 School Year

A seclusion room at Braun Educational Center in Oak Forest, Illinois, which is operated by the Southwest Cook County Cooperative Association for Special Education.

Children Locked Away in Illinois Schools

The number of school districts that reported using seclusion, the practice of forcibly isolating a student in a small room or other space, also increased to 138 from 133, underscoring how entrenched the practice has been in the state.

Dive Deeper Into Our Reporting

Over the last year, in response to a November 2019 investigation by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois, the state took several actions to discourage schools from relying on seclusion and physical restraint in response to difficult student behavior. “Illinois already had the distinction as being the national leader for its extremely heavy reliance on these dangerous and traumatic practices. Schools across the country submitted the 2017-18 data last year, at the same time the news organizations were reporting on seclusion and restraint for their investigation, “The Quiet Rooms. Though Illinois law at the time allowed schools to use seclusion and restraint only when students posed a danger to themselves or others, the investigation found widespread overuse and misuse of the practices.

Records obtained by the news organizations showed that school workers regularly used seclusion and restraint to punish children for misbehavior, to force them to comply with commands or for being disrespectful. Government officials swiftly responded to the investigation by banning locked seclusion, promising to investigate misuse and creating a data collection system. Lawmakers vowed to further restrict the use of seclusion and restraint and ban some restraints, but they have not done so. The Illinois State Board of Education mandated that school districts send the agency three years’ worth of reports that detailed each incident of restraint or seclusion, which Illinois calls isolated timeout.

In response to questions from ProPublica Illinois and Tribune reporters, ISBE said it reviewed incident reports from about 700 school districts and programs and used the information to create a database of more than 66,000 incidents of seclusion and restraint from the 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years. “But Illinois politics intervened and the school industry got the provisions watered down. The pending bill would restrict the use of seclusion and restraint and allow them only when there is an “imminent” danger of serious physical harm. Some schools have defended their use of seclusion and restraint and lobbied to continue using the interventions, saying they can’t serve students with challenging behaviors otherwise.

Alison Maley, with the Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance, said the group supports a ban on prone restraint and has provided input to lawmakers on other parts of the legislation with the hope “that we can come to an agreement. Naiditch said the latest seclusion and physical restraint figures, part of the Education Department’s Civil Rights Data Collection, again show why state officials should see this as an urgent matter, as Illinois reported using the practices more than most states. The data shows that seclusion and restraint are disproportionately used on students with disabilities and on boys. The latest data release shows Illinois public schools reported having secluded and restrained students at least 23,530 times during the 2017-18 school year, up from 17,403 two years earlier.

A Tribune/ProPublica Illinois analysis of the new federal data found that more than 100 districts reported an increase in the number of times they secluded students. That included the Northern Suburban Special Education District in Highland Park, which logged 552 incidents of seclusion and 704 incidents of restraint in the 2017-18 school year. The Northwest Suburban Special Education Organization in Mount Prospect reported 1,170 restraint incidents, more than any other school district in Illinois and nearly double the number from the 2015-16 school year. The district also reported an increase in the use of seclusion, to 676 instances.

Records previously obtained by the Tribune and ProPublica Illinois showed the district has used seclusion and restraint when students were physically aggressive, disruptive or disengaged.

The Quiet Rooms

Children are being locked away, alone and terrified, in schools across Illinois. Sixty Illinois districts reported using seclusion during the 2017-18 school year after reporting zero instances in the prior reporting period. And the tiny Tuscola district in Douglas County put five students in seclusion a total of 122 times, the data shows. The Alton superintendent said the district’s previous report of no seclusion instances was an error, and a spokeswoman for the Elmhurst district declined to answer questions about its use of seclusion.

Some districts said they had not correctly reported their use of seclusion and restraint and have asked the Education Department if they can fix errors. The district reported 1,074 seclusion incidents, but Taylor wrote in an email that the correct number is 46. Chicago Public Schools reported three seclusion instances in 2017-18, even though seclusion has been banned at the district since 2008.