Help! I’m trapped in the “safe room”

Today’s guest author is Anna Bernstein, MSW. Anna is a Child & Family Therapist who has spent enough time working in schools to know they can be better. She is also mom to an amazing autistic child who will probably have invented a time machine.

Kindergarten and First grade were challenging. My son, who is biracial and autistic, was suspended regularly and I took him out of school for the last two months of Kindergarten, as they were unable to support him. By the end of First Grade, he spent most of his days working one on one with an aide, at a table in a corner of the hallway. He was fine with this arrangement, but being publicly isolated wasn’t what I wanted for him. Sometimes he ran out of the classroom, and once or twice he left the building, ran around, and came back in. School staff made it clear that if he left the campus, which was next to a busy street, they would have no choice but to call the police for help catching a 6 year old child.

In second grade, we moved to a new, larger district, where I imagined there would be more supports. He was placed in a self-contained behavior classroom. This was what I wanted for him: 8-10 students in the classroom, 3-4 adults, and supports built-in. There was a comfy reading corner, access to headphones and other sensory supports, and lots of breaks throughout the day. The only thing I wasn’t sure about, despite its being shared with me as a selling point, was the brand-new “safe room.” I made the teacher show me the room, which was just a small, square space with padded walls and floor, and a big, heavy door, with a small window. There was a button just outside the room, which an adult could hold down to keep the door locked. The teacher assured me that the room was used as a break space when kids needed to run or yell or be away from the other students. She said it was a really useful space that kids often chose to go into.

The first time my child was physically restrained, the teacher called me after school, and then I sobbed until he got home.

The teacher said they couldn’t control him. They didn’t know why he was upset. He was fine, and then, with no warning, he wasn’t. He would be restrained dozens more times. He would be thrown in the “safe” room, which was anything but. At some point, he decided seclusion was better than restraint because at least seclusion didn’t hurt.

There are specific restraints that are allowed in Oregon schools. Most often, two adults would grab his arms and legs, and pin them to the wall. Sometimes two adults would carry all of his 80 (by the end of 5th grade) pounds down the hallway, each gripping an arm and a belt loop. When one adult got tired, another could tap in. The restraints could be modified for one adult, but the adults are less likely to be injured if they share the task. Prone restraints, where the child is facedown with an adult on top of them, are illegal in our state (in many states, they’re not). I’m grateful for this small favor. Prone restraints are the ones most likely to kill. When victims of police violence have famously shouted, “I can’t breathe!” those were prone restraints. An untrained daycare worker restrained my son this way once, and I learned about it weeks later.

After a few months, the seclusions and restraints became fewer and further between. He was doing great, following rules, and actually enjoying school. We talked about transitioning him out of the behavior classroom, but the transition never quite materialized. Then, midway through 3rd grade, something changed. Maybe the teacher was burned out. Maybe she didn’t have enough support. Maybe he was beginning to notice when his peers looked at him differently. Whatever the reason, he started being restrained and secluded more than ever. I would meet with the staff after most incidents. We’d discuss what had happened and I would make suggestions. Maybe they would implement them, maybe not. It’s impossible to know for sure. I kept him home for the last few weeks of third grade, and he had a new teacher the next year.

In a period of 2 or 3 months in fourth grade, he was secluded over 25 times. As the seclusions became more frequent, he started telling me little details. He told me about his panic attacks, when he would be trapped in the tiny room, feeling the walls closing in. He would picture everything that could go wrong, such as being left in the room with the building on fire. He told me about one incident when he was able to temporarily calm his body after escalating. The adults, seeing him calm, told him he could go outside, and walked with him toward the playground. However, as they passed the seclusion room, the adults suddenly pulled him in there instead. Another time, he urinated on the floor of the seclusion room, stating they wouldn’t allow him to go to the bathroom. They tried to force him to clean up the urine. He refused, so they took all of his classroom “money.” He later told me there was dried vomit in the corners of the room.

Sometimes they would call me, once he was in seclusion, to pick him up. I worked an hour away and I would spend the entire drive hyperventilating, begging the powers-that-be not to let this be the time I didn’t get there fast enough.

Sometimes he would manage to sneak his phone into seclusion with him, and he would call or text me when the teacher looked away, usually something like, “HELP!!!” If he called, he would beg me to save him. The office staff knew me, so when I arrived at the school, I would just rush straight to the seclusion room. The office staff knew me, so I would just rush straight to the seclusion room. His teacher, or sometimes an aide, would be sitting outside the room. Sometimes they would give me the briefest synopsis of what happened. And then I would see my child’s tiny, innocent, terrified face, up against the glass. I would hear his screams, punctuated by choking sobs, as he begged to be freed “from this prison.” Most of the time, he calmed down as soon as he saw me. He just wanted to getaway. Once, my partner picked him up, as they were closer to the school. My partner was a little hesitant, as they had not handled my son’s meltdowns without me yet. Seeing this, the teacher immediately offered to call the police. My partner, confused, declined and went to my son, who immediately calmed down, ready to go home.

I did my best to be collaborative. I called meetings and asked them to stop using seclusion. I offered alternatives. I brought in a letter from his therapist. When that didn’t work, I brought in an attorney. I was able to do these things because I was privileged enough to have an understanding of the system, laws, and resources available. I was a white grad student. Those words alone were enough for school staff to treat me differently. I was able to convey the appropriate “Karen vibes” to demand at least some level of respect. I had a connection with a Disability Rights Organization and was able to access their services. Most parents going through this do not have the advantages I did.

Still, it wasn’t enough. The school district refused to add anything prohibiting seclusion to his IEP. His behavior plan stated it should “only be used as a last resort,” which is already specified in the State Law. However, “last resort” or “risk of imminent and substantial bodily or physical injury to the student or others” (ORS 339.291) is extremely subjective. Sometimes it meant he was throwing pencils, or “posturing” or “moving into an adults’ space.” Rarely did it seem that there were no other options, or that he would have caused “significant harm to self or others.” The compromise they offered was to move him, the following year, to a different school. A school that was farther away from home, but did not have a special padded room just for seclusion. For the third of his 5 years in school, I had no choice but to pull him out in April for the sake of his mental health. The school district offered “home-based education” in which a teacher came to our home to work with him twice in about two months, for about an hour each time.

Fifth grade was better and worse. There was no room specifically designed for seclusion. Instead, he was restrained more often. Instead of seclusion, this school had a sensory room for breaks. There was a tent, soft lighting, foam blocks to climb on, gym mats. We both thought this was cool at first, and he looked forward to using it. Much later, I learned that when the staff needed to control him, they would take all the sensory tools out, and then throw him in.

An adult would stand just inside the room, holding the door shut. Since he wasn’t technically locked in, it wasn’t legally seclusion, so nobody had to report it to me.

Despite all this, he made it through 5th grade. He applied and was accepted by lottery into a Science-focused middle and high school program. He slowly started to spend time in a mainstream class toward the end of the year, but after 4 years in Behavior classrooms, the transition was too much. Despite his excitement and ability for science, the school team decided that program could not support him, and he would transfer instead to a middle school that had a similar behavior support program. He was disappointed, but he tried his best to start middle school with a positive outlook. It seemed like he was doing well. I only knew of one minor meltdown at school, and all other feedback I got from the teacher was positive. He didn’t do much work, but he was making progress.

About a month in, he started refusing to go to school. This wasn’t new, but it was new for this year and this school. I knew he hadn’t been restrained or secluded, and I was relieved about that. I told him I was proud that he was doing so well. He broke down and told me that whenever he started to do something the teachers didn’t like, they would threaten to call the School Resource Officer, who would regularly walk past his classroom. He wasn’t getting in trouble, he said, because he was terrified of the Officer. 

At that point, I decided that was enough. I spent too long trying to force him to fit into a system designed to break him, and I became determined to build him up instead. Today, over a year later,he has noticeable trauma reactions just walking into school buildings, and you can still hear the pain and fear in his voice when he talks about it. He may never feel safe enough to return to traditional school, and that’s okay. Our story has a happier ending than some. He was traumatized, but alive and never injured. 

As for myself, his struggles, even before the seclusion and restraint started, inspired me to go to grad school to try to help other families navigate our complex educational system. I earned an MSW in 2017, and have been working as a mental health therapist, primarily with children and families in the school setting. I especially focus on kids with behavior challenges- the ones who are at risk for these types of “discipline.” My goal is to work on a more macro level to end these abusive practices for good.

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