Isolation Rooms

By Anne Olszewski, J.D. 2016, University of Windsor Faculty of Law

Should governments ban isolation rooms in Canadian schools?

A Toronto mother of an autistic child certainly thinks so. Karen Thorndyke  and her family are suing their district school board for $16 million claiming their autistic son was repeatedly kept in an “isolation room” as punishment for his outbursts and misbehavior  in the classroom. The allegations have not been proven in court.

It is likely that Canadians are, for the most part, unaware of how common isolation rooms are. They come in variety of names including “seclusion rooms” “scream rooms” and the public relations friendly “alternative learning rooms”. Often times, they are small windowless rooms where children are sent when they misbehave in the classroom. The rooms are locked and the amount of time the child spends in isolation varies.

The report contends that brief physical intervention used to stop an immediate and serious danger to the child or others may be appropriate in the case of an emergency. However, the ongoing use of restraint as punishment or in the guise of treatment for a child’s disability or behavior indicates a need for program revision.

Article 24 of the (CRPD) states,

  1. “Parties shall ensure an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning directed to:

(a) The full development of human potential and sense of dignity and self-worth, and the strengthening of respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and human diversity; […]

  1. In realizing this right, States Parties shall ensure that:

[…](e) Effective individualized support measures are provided in environments that maximize academic and social development, consistent with the goal of full inclusion.

Choosing to administer isolation rooms as a way of behaviour control may systemically discriminate against children with disabilities depriving them of an inclusive education. While the rooms are not specifically for the use of children with special needs, the behaviour, ticks, and outbursts that the rooms are meant to calm are typically associated with disabilities such as autism or downs syndrome. It follows, that children with disabilities are often sent to isolation rooms at a higher frequency than children who do not present these behaviours. For those children, the rooms cause more harm than good, with survey respondents reporting children feeling traumatized, fear and anxiety while in the rooms and afterwards.

According to Article 23 of the  (CRC), “children who have a disability have the right to special care and support, so that they can live full and independent lives.” Further, Article 28 provides that, “the child has the right to education; the State has a duty to make primary education compulsory and free to all; to take measures to develop different forms of secondary education and to make this accessible to all children. School discipline should be administered in a manner consistent with the child’s human dignity and developing respect for the natural environment.”

Canada has committed to the protection of these rights and yet the reality is that many school boards continue to deprive children of their right to inclusive education. In the 2011 Ontario Special Education Tribunal decision of M. S. v. Ottawa Catholic District School Board, a student identified with autism had been suspended from school for extended periods of time, missing 32 out of 51 days in 2009. Since April 2009, the student had not attended school in spite of being of compulsory school age. This was yet another example of the school board’s inability or unwillingness to accommodate the needs of children with disabilities.

The school board’s actions indicated a worrisome message that is mirrored in the use of isolation rooms. It is easier for the school to remove a child with disabilities from the classroom than to provide integration and accommodation.

The Tribunal found in favour of the child and ordered the parties to facilitate the student’s return to school with special education services provided. While this case demonstrated the Tribunal’s commitment to the best interests of the student, the fact remains that the order was a reactive remedy for the school board’s inability to provide education in accordance to the CRC and the CRPD.

Additionally, proponents of the medical/individual model of disability theorize that the “problem” of disability lies with the individual, and it is up to society to provide medical assistance from professionals to correct said problem. However, even if one supports the medical model which is controversial, the idea of isolation room as a solution fails yet again as there is no evidence that isolation rooms actually benefit the child. In fact, some would argue that they do more harm than good, increasing anxiety and feelings of isolation, which can lead to further disruptive and harmful behaviour.

Largely due to children’s rights advocacy groups, lawmakers have been considering the legality of isolation rooms. A 2015 report analyzing state seclusion and restraint laws in the United States provided that some jurisdictions have passed meaningful laws regulating the use of isolation rooms. One such jurisdiction is Alaska where section 14.33.125 of the Alaska Administrative Code regulates student restraint and seclusion. These provisions demand annual reviews of the program, describe when a child may be secluded, and importantly, order that parents are provided a report documenting the incident.

Canada does not yet have equivalent regulations in this regard. Isolation rooms deprive children of their protected human right to education; they systematically discriminate against children with disabilities and further aggravate issues these children live with every day including stigmatization, isolation and anxiety. It is time for Canadian lawmakers, school boards, teachers and administrators to make a change towards a proactive and inclusive classroom, doing away with the use of isolation rooms for the benefit of all children.