Kids in Confinement

By Savini, Dave; Rubenstein, Michele | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, November/December 2000 | Go to article overview

Kids in Confinement


Savini, Dave, Rubenstein, Michele, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal


In the basement of an elementary school, tucked away in a dark corner was a tiny room. It had a deadbolt lock on the outside and a paper bag concealed the window. Inside, the walls were covered with musty shag carpeting and paint chips fell from the ceiling. There was no ventilation and a rusted, jagged pipe hung overhead. It reeked of mildew and urine.

This was a "time-out room" where elementary school students were locked up for such offenses as failing to do homework.

Our yearlong investigation of such abuses in schools began with a tip from a mother who had stumbled across this room during a PTA meeting. Unaware that the school was using this type of discipline, she asked her 8-year-old son about the room. He told her he was terrified of it - he had watched kids get locked inside and listened to them scream and kick for long periods of time.

We immediately took advantage of a rare opportunity to bring a camera into the school at a Christmas party scheduled for that week. Using a home video recorder, we found the room exactly how our tipster described it.

Next, we spent time in the district. By knocking on doors and talking to people in the area, we soon found children who had been locked inside the time-out room repeatedly. One boy had been locked up about 30 times.

Another child said he was put in time-out on numerous occasions, sometimes for an hour at a time. The boy's guardian, his grandmother, said the school never notified her about the disciplinary action. She didn't even know the isolation room existed and was furious the school never told her about it.

After our first story aired, the tips poured in at a surprising rate. Over the course of a year we continued documenting time-out abuses in schools throughout Illinois.

The most egregious involved locking students in closet-size rooms for hours at a time. Young children were denied access to food, water and bathrooms. In a school for special needs students, a severely disabled boy was locked inside a box the size of a phone booth for most of the day. His offense? Crying.

At another school, a disabled teenager was locked in time-out for about six hours. His panicked grandmother searched for him when he didn't return home from school. She found him there inside a small room with a steel door locked on the outside. He was not given lunch and was soaked in urine because no one had taken him to the bathroom.

The boy's mother and grandmother agreed to take us, with our hidden camera, into the school to get video of its five time-out rooms. Within 15 minutes of class starting we were able to watch, and tape, teachers and counselors putting four kids into time-out rooms.

School officials said the rooms were only used as a last resort for unruly children. It's a tactic for de-escalating a volatile situation, they said. But we watched children become agitated - even aggressive - after being locked in the rooms. Our camera rolled as three adults forcefully shoved a small young girl into time-out. Her hysterical screams were chilling - but in Illinois you cannot record audio with a hidden camera. A counselor sitting against another time-out room door was almost knocked off her chair as the child inside kicked furiously to get out. Both kids appeared calm before being forced into time-out.

While we were there undercover, counselors told us the kids were being locked up because they either misbehaved on the school bus, or were talking when the teacher called the class to order.

Time-out guidelines

Since corporal punishment was banned in the early 1980s, schools have been looking for new ways to discipline misbehaving students. Time-out became popular. It's supposed to be used as a last resort, to calm aggressive children. However, we found children were routinely given time-out for not doing homework or talking too much in class.

Our investigation uncovered a significant number of abuses. …

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