PRIOR LAKE, Minn. (KMSP) - For Kellie Sanders, life is wrapped around Hunter, her 11-year old son who had a brain stroke when he was born premature.
Every day brings its joys--and struggles.
And yet, nothing seemed to explain Hunter's absolute terror last year when it came to going his new school, Grainwood Elementary in Prior Lake, where he was considered to be on the "autism spectrum."
"He got to the point having a panic attack, 'please, don't send me to school,'” Sanders said. "'I don't want to go, I don't want to go. They're going to lock me in that room.' and I'm like what? What do you mean? 'Well, every time I go to school, I get off bus, they lock me in the room.'"
At Grainwood Elementary it's known as “The Quiet Room”--Room 250. It's nothing more than an empty classroom with covered windows.
Her son's case manager told her in an email, “Because Hunter has been coming in aggressive, we need to make keeping Hunter safe our first priority."
"He feared this room," his mother said.
Other schools, have different names for the rooms: “time out” or “resolution" rooms, or at one school it’s called “the cabin.” Many are bleak and sterile.
382 SECLUSION ROOMS IN MINNESOTA SCHOOLS
Under state law the rooms are known as seclusion rooms. There are 382 of them registered with the Minnesota Department of Education.
According to state statute, the rooms must be at least six feet by five feet, well lit, have a window that allows staff to look in, doors that open out and keyless locks.
In addition, seclusion rooms must be registered with the state, used only in an emergency--not for punishment--and parents must be notified when their children are placed in the room.
Sanders said she didn’t know her son was spending time in the room and that he was in there every day for four and a half hours a day.
A state investigation found the Prior Lake-Savage school district had denied Sanders' son "a free and appropriate education," under federal law.
Because the school failed to keep adequate records it's unclear how many hours Hunter spent in the seclusion room, but investigators determined he spent at least 77 hours--or 12 out of 64 school days (Feb 1 to May 25, 2016)--outside the educational environment.
The district also violated state law by failing to register the seclusion room and failing to notify the parent.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Savage-Prior Lake School District told the FOX 9 Investigators:
The safety of all of our students is our top priority. We engage with parents to understand their perspectives so that together we can provide the best education possible for students. We will continue to provide training for staff to meet the educational needs of all students.
"LIKE A JAIL CELL”
Jessica's son attends a different school. She doesn't wish to be identified to protect her son from retaliation, but she described the seclusion room at her son’s school as “a jail cell.”
She said he was put in the seclusion room because the staff was simply overwhelmed.
"It could be different with training," she said. "My child was locked up 70 times. When does the state say, 'Whoa, how many times for this one child?”
5,258 INCIDENTS OF SECLUSION
The Fox 9 Investigators made a public records request with the Minnesota Department of Education and found 15 separate investigations and dozens of violations in just the last two years concerning the use of restraints and seclusion.
The most common violations were seclusion rooms that weren't registered with the state, were being used as punishment or parents who weren't being told about seclusion incidents.
The FOX 9 Investigators analyzed more than 5,258 seclusion room incidents in the last 9 months.
The longest documented time in a seclusion room was four hours. The average time: 12 minutes. 259 times seclusion was initiated because a staff member was injured. 76 times because a student was injured.
24 DAYS IN 'THE CALMING ROOM'
An investigation two years ago into the Belview Learning Center near Marshall was fairly typical. The school had two unregistered seclusion rooms, and a third it called a “calming room.”
The investigation found one student spent a total of 24 days in the calming room.
According to the investigation, students were not allowed to leave the calming room until they could sit in a yoga-like position for five minutes. The district said it has since discontinued that particular practice, which it called a ‘strong sit.’
In a prepared statement, Cliff Carmody, executive director of Belview’s school district, the Southwest West Central Service Cooperative, said:
When Belview was informed of the concerns regarding the use of its seclusion room, it immediately addressed them. Belview considered this complaint as an opportunity to receive objective input into its policies, procedures and training and to improve the services it provides to its students.
GETTING IT RIGHT
Several educators told us Edina is a school district getting it right. At Concord Elementary, it's called a “sensory room”, with a lava lamp, and various tools used to de-escalate a child's behavior, especially when they're on the autism spectrum.
"Sensory input is different for them. They process it differently. It feels bigger. Lights are bright, sounds are louder, motion is overwhelming," said Leah Ellis, an Autism Teacher in the district.
And for teachers here, a 'sensory room,' isn't just another name for seclusion.
“If they need to calm down we stay with them to calm down," Ellis said. "If they're feeling out of control we stay with them, and work with them with whatever they're working through."
The sensory room is also a last resort after other techniques have been used, like noise canceling head phones or a weighted blanket.
For special education teachers the work can be exhausting. Every autistic child is like a riddle, finding out what works.
NOT AN 'IDEAL' EDUCATION
"We were told this by the principal, 'Your child is not entitled to an ideal education,’" said Sanders.
She said she suggested a weighted blanket and headphones to Hunter's teacher, but her suggestions were ignored.
She is now home schooling Hunter--something she never expected.--but after the seclusion room, she doesn't know who else to trust with the boy at the center of her world.
"If this were a doctor or therapist doing this to a child they could've lost their license. If they went to school and said this is my mom and dad forcing me in a room, child protection would've been on us.” Sanders said. “We would have faced some ramifications.”