The Reality of Isolation Rooms in New Jersey’s Public Schools, and Efforts to Ban the Practice

Today’s guest author is Alyssa Lidman

Alyssa Lidman is a news reporter with an interest in political and social issues. She earned her M.A. in Journalism from Hofstra University, where she wrote her thesis about corporate takeover in the journalism industry. Alyssa is a writer at heart and outside of being a journalist, she is a visual artist.

In the state of New Jersey, the issue of seclusion and restraint, specifically the topic of quiet rooms, are the subject of recent media attention. Isolation rooms, otherwise known as quiet rooms, are padded rooms where children are placed for disruptive behavior. Isolation rooms are known to have traumatic effects on students, and they are legal for students of grades K-12.

School districts in New Jersey including Little Egg Harbor, Montclair, North Brunswick, and Northern Valley Regional are known to have isolation rooms. Children as young as 5, 6, and 7 can be restrained. Isolation rooms are most often used with black students and students with disabilities. Data from the All Students Safe Act states, “A 2009 investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found hundreds of incidents of child abuse, some resulting in death, due to the use of seclusion and restraint practices in school.” This striking report is indicative of the adverse effects of seclusion and restraint. There is currently no national law preventing seclusion and restraint in the United States. Some school officials who defend the use of restraint and isolation rooms argue that seclusion is a necessity in cases where the safety of teachers and other students are a safety risk.

According to the United States Department of Education in the years 2017-2018, 77% of students across the United States who were secluded are students with disabilities, and 84% of students subjected to seclusion were boys. Nationally, 60% of students who were subjected to seclusion and restraint were white, 22% were black or African American, and 9% were Hispanic or Latino.

Nicole Farjani is a former paraprofessional from Montclair Public Schools in Montclair, New Jersey. She worked in a classroom next to a seclusion room, and then became outspoken against the practice. She said, “I brought this to the attention of the Board of Ed. Even though I was working there, I got a lot of pushback.” She left the Montclair Public School District in 2019.

“I ended up resigning my position because I got harassed by staff after this.” she said. “It was a mess.”

She recalled that isolation rooms were used multiple times a day, and that parents were not being notified when their children were put into isolation rooms. She stated, “It’s used on children with disabilities and primarily children of color. That’s exactly what was happening in the room next to me. It was predominantly black boys. They were labeled as children with behavioral problems.” Farjani continued, “The part that bothered me was that it was inside the classroom so that the children saw who was locked away and screaming. I saw them restrain children and drag them down the hall, and you know they’re going into the seclusion closet. If people actually followed policy, if their life was in imminent danger- but that’s absolutely not how they’re being used.”

Guy Stephens is the founder of the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint. In an interview, he stated, “If you forcefully put a child in a room, and you hold the door shut, it is not therapeutic. They bang, they scream, they hold the door shut. It’s traumatic.” In a separate quote, Stephens stated, “I look at this as a civil rights issue. Eighty eight percent of kids who are being secluded and restrained are kids with disabilities.” He added, “There are better ways of supporting kids.”

Stephens stated that the use of restraint should be exceedingly rare, encompassing only life-or-death situations.

A New Jersey law, titled S3027, requires a school to notify parents if a child with a disability is placed inside an isolation room. According to this law, “a seclusion technique is used on a student with disabilities only in an emergency in which the student is exhibiting behavior that places the student or others in immediate physical danger.” Furthermore, the law also states that the seclusion or restraint must be monitored, written in sufficient detail, and reported to a parent or guardian within 48 hours.

The United States Senate recently introduced the Keeping All Students Safe Act, a bill which would make seclusion and restraint illegal at a national level, the only exception being when there is a safety risk. The bill would, “make it illegal for any school receiving federal funds to seclude a child or use dangerous restraint practices that restrict breathing, such as prone or supine restraint.”

Sol Heckelman is a retired school psychologist, and a board member with the New Jersey Association of School Psychologists. When asked how long isolation rooms have been in practice, he stated, “Forever.” He continued, “That’s been going on for a long time and now it’s not as intense or divisive as it was.” Heckelman continued, “Well, it’s still used in the public schools, but not consistently. There are a lot of folks that frown on it. When you think about it- you’re punishing the child. You’re isolating the child and depending on how it’s done; it can be abused.” Individuals who are outspoken against seclusion and restraint emphasize how traumatic it is for children. Heckelman discussed the alternatives to isolation and restraint include what is known as social-emotional learning.

Isolation rooms are well-known to be traumatic for students. The majority of students who are subjected to isolation and restraint are in elementary school, and the practice disproportionately targets students with disabilities and black students. The practice of seclusion and restraint can, at its worst, be fatal. Seclusion and restraint is and has been highly controversial. Currently, legislation including the Keeping All Students Safe Act aims to ban seclusion and restraint for K-12 students. Activists and experts argue that there are more constructive, trauma-informed ways to support children in the classroom. While isolation and restraint in public schools has been in practice for several decades, advocates against the practice are making their voices heard.

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