I want to preface this by explaining that I only write this anonymously because I don’t want colleges or future employers to look my name up and read about my childhood trauma. I attended kindergarten through 4th grade in a Vermont Public School. I am now in High School. Last year a letter was written addressing parents about restraint and seclusion policies in the Harwood Unified Union School District. I was one of those students affected by those policies.
What I remember most about my elementary school was what we students called the ‘White Room.’ It is the main isolation or seclusion room on the bottom floor within what was known as the ‘S.S.S.’ office. I think it stood for Special Student Services. I remember the ‘White Room’ well. It was a small room, and yet I felt even smaller. It was barren of furniture, so I sat on cold off-white tiles and stared at hard walls that were blindingly white with the lights on. I would sit there for what felt like ages, but most likely was often 10-30 minute periods. I know at least once, I was in there for an hour. There were no windows in that room except for one too high set for me, a short child, to reach.
I would sit in that room. I always felt a sense of frantic urgency to get out. I’d scream and cry and hit the door until I went numb and escaped into my imagination.
I was ignored in that room until I was too emotionally drained to care when or if they brought me out. It’s worth mentioning that I never knew what hyperventilating or anxiety attacks were until middle school—this is to say that I experienced anxiety attacks while in that room but didn’t know it. I feel it’s also important to note that most of my memories of the ‘White Room’ were from kindergarten through second grade—they still put me in there when I was older. However, it’s much harder to drag a fourth grader from the third floor to the ground floor than a smaller, weaker kindergarten whose class is on the same floor as the S.S.S. offices.
As for the reason why I was brought to the ‘White Room,’ I can’t fully recall. Disruptive behavior is generally the reason; however, the definition used for said behavior could be as innocuous as talking back or ignoring teachers. I know many kids who were far more regulated who were put in that room. The first time I was placed there was my first day in kindergarten. I didn’t know anyone. I was scared and was reduced to a sobbing mess that refused to leave from under the table. Similar situations were likely the reasons they deemed deserving of being isolated in that awful room.
Now for my experience with staff restraining me. Honestly, this is where it gets hazier for me. The few times I was restrained was more traumatic for me. These experiences are why touch drives me to panic when I’m in a state of high anxiety. I can recall multiple instances of being unwillingly dragged to the isolation room. In my second, third, and fourth years I developed a habit of repeatedly banging my head against the wall when I became too stressed. I would be pulled from the wall—perhaps a justifiable instance of restraint. However, let’s put a star next to this point. There was one incident in fourth grade. Two adults pinned me in a small square area outside the classroom bathroom. I struggled, kicking, screaming, and fighting out of their grips for what seemed like hours. I was in full fight or flight mode. Even if restraint was justified, it did not de-escalate or help the situation in the slightest. This last incident was resolved when my mom was called, brought to the classroom, and hugged me until I was only left crying. Now back to that starred point. Since day one of kindergarten, I have had very obvious issues with emotion regulation and socializing with others. From day one, isolation was used on me. Instead of learning to communicate my emotions calmly with words, I learned to bottle them up until I exploded and lashed out through physical means—primarily by attacking furniture or bashing my head against a wall. This behavior escalated throughout my years at my elementary school resulting in future incidents where restraint was deemed necessary. I needed help, not trauma, but that is what resulted from the use of restraint and isolation.
I now know both seclusion and restraint are meant to be the last resorts to extreme situations—yet in my and others’ experience, the adults defaulted to these supposed last resorts. Of course, none of this matters if there were no long-lasting effects on the child—however, the idea they could potentially be harmless is laughable. So let me talk about my damage. I have received an official diagnosis of ADD, depression, and anxiety, which were likely there in some form since I was a child. All three have worsened throughout the years, but starting in middle school, where they didn’t restrain or isolate me, I began to learn to cope. I was a very stressed and sad child, so it was easier to be mad when I could not articulate how I felt.
As mentioned previously, I am uncomfortable with touch in certain situations, particularly when I’m anxious and especially during and after an anxiety attack—even with people I trust, I find I flash to my time in elementary school.
I had heightened social anxiety on top of my base social ineptitude due to all my emotional blowups witnessed by peers. I also had to relearn to trust adults once I left elementary school. My sense of self-worth, motivation to learn, and ability to seek friendships were thoroughly crushed. I’m doing better today, but I won’t ever be unmarred by my time there.
It took me a long time to process and understand what happened. I am still working through it. I still feel panicky recalling this, and I can’t even look at the school building without feeling sick. Despite it all, I want people to be aware, acknowledge, and understand what I and too many others went through. Nothing will ever take away the hurt, but I ask that there is change. I ask those in charge to seek alternative solutions, to properly train staff, to report and reflect on every incident, and to remember that last resorts are the last option for a good reason.
Thank you for listening.