Bad behaviour must be dealt with, but tiny ‘safe rooms’ are not the answer, they say
VANCOUVER - Parents of children with behavioural difficulties in school agree there needs to be a plan in place for them so other students are not disrupted but disagree in the use of “time-out” or “safe” rooms.
The Vancouver Sun learned three Vancouver elementary schools — Renfrew elementary, Waverley elementary and John Norquay elementary — are using the rooms for students in special “district” classes, which are for students with behavioural challenges, and the parents of four individual students in regular classrooms have given the schools permission to put their children in “safe rooms” as a last resort strategy. There’s also an interagency facility in Vancouver, called Alderwood Family Development Centre, where 16 elementary-school-aged children can be placed in a 10-foot-by-10-foot room whenever their behaviours are deemed unsafe.
The rooms came to light after a child advocate alerted the Vancouver school district that a six-year-old foster child, who came from an abusive background, was regularly being locked in a room described as a 3-foot-by-3-foot “closet” while attending Renfrew elementary school last year.
The Sun also learned that one elementary student last year in Vancouver was kicked out of school under a “medical exclusion” because of unsafe behaviour, three students were given “medical exclusions” in 2007 and one in 2006.
One child who was medically excluded in 2007 while a kindergarten student at Tecumseh elementary school, was seven-year-old Emery Green. Now a Grade 2 student there, Emery spent his kindergarten year back at pre-school and his Grade 1 year at Alderwood facility. While at Alderwood, Emery’s father, Chris Green, gave permission for his son to be physically taken to the centre’s “blue” room when he was considered a danger to himself or others. This happened once or twice, Green says, while Emery was in Alderwood.
“Our kids, if they get over-stimulated, will start acting out. He’d melt down and run around and knock kids over. So when a child is being a danger like that this [the time out room] is an option for the kids to calm down,” says Green, who adds at the time of Emery’s medical exclusion from school it was believed he had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Green says before Emery was forced to leave Tecumseh elementary under the “medical exclusion” he was getting called to pick up his son from school daily, sometimes as early as half-an hour after dropping him off.
“I was bringing him to work. It wasn’t ideal for him or me. I got lucky they [his workplace] were willing to let me do that,” says Green, who adds he appreciated the year Emery spent at Alderwood because they were able to handle any disruptive behaviour without him being called to pick up his son.
“I wouldn’t recommend a 3-by-3-foot room, but there has to be something set up when the child gets out of line,” he says. “Would you rather wait until the child is 18 and the little room is in Matsqui [Institution]? ”
Now that Emery is in Grade 2, he has a one-to-one aide and he’s able to leave the regular classroom and take a break whenever he is getting over-stimulated and there are warning signs he might “have a meltdown,” says Green.
But another parent disagrees with “time out” rooms, saying she was upset to learn it was regularly happening to her son when he was a Grade 2 student at an elementary school in New Westminster.
Natasha Mountain says when she discovered her son, Ethan Bushey Mountain, now 12, was being placed in a former custodian “closet,” sometimes for as long as one hour, she immediately withdrew him from the school.
Bushey says her son, who has a brain injury and was at risk for seizures, was being sent to the small windowless room alone where he was not safe should he have had a seizure.
When she reported the matter to the police she was told locking children in a room at schools was not considered a crime. She also complained to the New Westminster school district and learned they not only agreed with the practice but paid $800 for the school to strip a former janitorial closet and convert it into a “safe” room for Ethan. The only thing in the room was a cushion for him to sit on.
Mountain says Ethan wasn’t violent but she did agree “in the school system you don’t want someone yelling” as her son was doing at the time. She says that no longer happens at his new school because there is a positive behavioural plan in place that does not include “time out” or “safe” rooms.
The issue of dealing effectively with troubled students is not black and white and needs to be handled on a case by case basis, says UBC associate professor Laurie Ford, from the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Education School of Psychology.
Ford says placing children in a “time out” or “safe” room should be seen as a last resort.
“Restricting kids and excluding kids doesn’t replace a positive supportive behavioural plan. You want to make sure you have exhausted everything before you go to a punitive model. It’s a very last resort and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that it is a really effective model,” says Ford.