In early January, concerns surfaced that Farm Hill Elementary School in Middletown had been using a time-out room meant for disruptive students in a potentially unsafe manner. This concrete, 16 feet by 13 feet room was originally intended for students with special needs who entered into the Individualized Education Program (IEP). Students not in the IEP program were to never use the time-out room, and when a child was in the room they were to be supervised by a teacher for the entirety of their time there.
But on Jan. 10, concerned parents and citizens brought up issues regarding this room at an education board meeting, citing that children in the room had not been properly supervised and that a child may do damage to oneself while isolated. Additionally, they stated that the rooms were being used for all disruptive students and not just for those in the IEP. Children reported being scared of the screams they heard coming from the time-out room. Because of these instances, parents and the media have begun to refer to the time-out rooms as “scream rooms.”
At a press conference on Jan. 13, the Superintendent of Middletown Schools at the time, Michael Frechette, responded saying that all use of these rooms would cease immediately. He promised that in the future changes would be made, including increasing the amount of staff that is qualified to deal with special education students.
Furthermore, a bill was created requiring the state Department of Education to keep track of the use of restraint and seclusion rooms in school districts across the state. As of March 23, the bill was passed by the Connecticut General Assembly’s Education Committee.
On March 9, Michael Frechette stepped down as superintendent. The Board of Education has now appointed Dr. David H. Larson as the interim superintendent. In an interview with The Argus, Larson said that the situation at Farm Hill has been handled well with the help of the school’s new principal, Mark Proffitt. Larson stated that the school is taking the appropriate steps to provide a safe area that a child can use if their behavior is deemed disruptive to the class or they need to be alone with an adult.
Sydney Lewis ’14 volunteers at the MacDonough Elementary School in Middletown 10 to 12 hours a week and has worked in Farm Hill Family Resource Center, providing childcare for two community meetings following the time-out room issue. She stated that while these type of time-out rooms have never been used during her time at MacDonough, she believed the Farm Hill room’s controversial usage arose from not having professionals in the school, and from being generally understaffed.
“The schools have knowledge of the scientific evidence and research, and have IEPs for kids with special needs,” Lewis said. “They should have real ways of dealing with those behavioral problems. Even more than being just a really inappropriate and unethical way to deal with children, it’s also embarrassing because it shows that Farm Hill either doesn’t have the resources that it needs to get from the state for education, or that it’s not using those resources appropriately.”
When the problem of “scream rooms” came to light in January, a Middletown mother, Jane Majewski, created a petition that called for the firing of the special education leaders. As of March 28, 2012, the petition had 280 signatures.
Wesleyan Students for Disability Rights (WSDR), a group dedicated to promoting awareness of disability issues on campus, has been in contact with citizens of Middletown about the time-out room and are working to circulate the petition created by Majewski.
Oriana Ott ’14, a member of WSDR, said that the “scream rooms” are not unique to Farm Hill, but are actually part of a larger national trend. Ott stated that while she believed in giving students a space where they can calm down safely, the room should be supervised by an adult who is medically trained.
“These rooms are considered a form of medical restraint,” Ott said. “In any medical setting, only people with training and certification are allowed to use these types of restraint. In schools, there is no training or certification required to use them.”
Ott also explained that while the programs are developed between teachers and parents, teachers don’t necessarily know how to use these rooms appropriately. Therefore, even when the room is being used with parents’ consent within these programs, the actual methods being employed may endanger children.
“A time-out room is one thing, but locking a kid in a closet because you don’t want to deal with them is another,” Ott said. “And that’s basically the distinction.”
While Ott was not sure about what kind of alternative method would replace the time-out room, she said that the problem was definitely fixable, and that it is certainly possible to preserve both the safety and dignity of students.
Lewis also added that though there is not necessarily further action to be taken beyond the staffing changes and the proposed bill, the discussion generated by the incident was crucial.
“I think it’s a message to change,” Lewis said. “It sends an important wake up call that there needs to be more transparency and more professional, appropriate work being done in these schools.”