Some Ohio children with disabilities are regularly isolated in cell-like rooms or closets meant to be calming but often are misused, a newspaper reported Sunday.
The Columbus Dispatch said its investigation in collaboration with NPR and Ohio public-radio stations found that the rooms are sometimes used by teachers to punish children.
District logs and incident reports show that children with special needs - often emotional or behavioral disorders - regularly are placed in seclusion rooms, often alone, for minor infractions.
According to the paper, placing children in the rooms often is a convenience for frustrated employees, and there is little evidence that seclusion helps children.
The investigation requested records from 100 districts and charter schools across Ohio: 39 set aside rooms to isolate children.
The investigation found that no law governs seclusion rooms, and the Ohio Department of Education has provided little guidance.
The department has no idea which districts have seclusion rooms because it has not asked, the paper said.
A parent, Karen Boddie, asked the Ohio Department of Education to step in when her son was locked alone in Columbus' Clearbrook Middle School's seclusion room and denied lunch. The state told Columbus to stop withholding food but said nothing of the seclusion practices, the paper said.
"Sometimes, he'd be left in there from the time school started to the time school ended," Boddie said. She took him out of school to be tutored at home.
Sasheen Phillips, who leads the special-education division at the state Education Department, said the agency believes in local control and would investigate abuse or misuse of seclusion rooms if someone complained.
The department is writing a policy to regulate some aspects of seclusion rooms but not ban them. Phillips expects the policy to be approved by March 2013, five years after the department started writing it.
Advocates for the disabled are concerned.
"There's no way to gauge the breadth of the problem. It's hidden from view," said Sue Tobin, the chief legal counsel for Ohio Legal Rights Service, a state agency that works to protect people with disabilities.