Safe Room

Can you imagine a little boy or girl locked in a dark 10 by 10 room that smells of urine? Recent inquiries by parents and the Alaska Law Center have focused on the issue of safe rooms in elementary schools as a way of dealing with students who are a danger to themselves, to others, or to the property. The results of the inquiry make it clear that this is a growing issue in the Anchorage School District and across the United States.

A number of schools in the Anchorage School District have what are called seclusion rooms. On average, the room is 10 by 10 with padded walls and floors and an observation window or camera. The walls and floor are padded so the student cannot harm him/herself. The window or camera allows a staff member to observe the student but not interact with the child directly.

The safe room at Mount Iliamna Elementary in Anchorage was the focus of recent inquiries. Like most seclusion rooms, children were sent there because they were hurting themselves, others or damaging property. Now this doesn’t seem so bad, right? Well those are the rooms that are kept in good condition. A child can be kept in the safe room for 30 minutes to an hour. This is the original purpose and procedure for seclusion rooms, but this is not the case in many places.

In some communities, there are rooms that are smaller than 10 by 10, have little to zero light, and they smell of urine. It was found that some students are sent to the safe room for minor infractions and some are left for long periods of time. One student was sent to the safe room for refusing to do work, and telling the teacher, “No” and “You’re being mean!”  Another student in Ohio was escorted into the safe room from 1:45-2:15pm for refusing to come when the teacher called him and not willingly going to the blue room.

Some people believe the use of these safe rooms for such minor infractions is unacceptable. This is most notably happening in Ohio where lawmakers have just passed a law banning the existence of these seclusion rooms. This is a major step forward for the defense of minors in school. There is very little documentation of how often and how long students are sent to safe rooms, but research does show that a large number of special education students end up in these rooms.  Some people have begun to wonder if safe rooms are just a place to hide troublesome students.

The reasoning behind seclusion rooms is that if a student poses a threat to himself, others or school property, then a student can be placed into a safe, well lit, and padded observation room so that the student does not hurt themselves or negatively impact the learning of other students. Once the student has calmed down they should be escorted back to class. While the intent of safe rooms may be positive, but records show that procedures are not always followed consistently.

The seclusion room has been used as a place to hide or get rid of troublesome students. ASD teacher Larry Simmons believes, “Safe rooms are misused due to lack of training or teachers wanting to punish students.”  This clearly wasn’t the purpose behind the safe rooms.

Other employees like Karen Levine, librarian at Rogers Park Elementary School, says, “I am not sure if there should be a law that carries legal repercussions if the employees do follow procedure when using the safe room.”

The issues of safe room are multilayered and confusing. There may be no clear solution in sight, but the answer must meet the needs of the student body.