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Across Canada, some classrooms choose to isolate pupils with autism or other complex needs when they act out – sometimes with traumatic results. Now provinces, parents and educators are reviving a debate about how to balance discipline with dignity

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Aaron Bailey-Boshard, a 14-year-old autistic boy in Brentwood Bay, B.C., has been homeschooled for the past three years ever since his middle school put him in an isolated classroom, an experience that his mother says 'demoralized and shamed' him.Photography by Melissa Renwick/The Globe and Mail

Michelle Boshard felt cornered.

Her 11-year-old son, Aaron, had been diagnosed with autism and a speech disorder. To accommodate his needs, he had only been attending school for the part of the day in a specialized class. But, after a series of behavioural incidents, which culminated with him injuring an educational assistant, school officials had sent him home midway through the academic year.

He would only be allowed to return, they told her, if he spent his days isolated in a classroom with two adult supervisors. They would not allow him outside for recess, either, and for safety reasons, they would have to insist Aaron wear a wrestling helmet – the soft foam kind – with the chinstrap securely fastened at all times.

The room officials designated for him had a buzzer locked door, a beanbag chair, a tent, a desk and a window, where he would be able to see other children playing on the basketball court.

“He was emotionally devastated,” Ms. Boshard said. “Demoralized and shamed.”

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Michelle Boshard, left, says that Aaron continues to deal with the 'trauma, stigma, embarrassment and shame' he experienced at his B.C. school.

Ms. Boshard has since pulled Aaron out of Bayside Middle School in Brentwood Bay, B.C. She homeschools her son. Three years later, the isolation has left them still traumatized – their case highlighting a last option educators use to mitigate the disruptive, sometimes dangerous behaviour of children.

Seclusion rooms – sometimes soundproof, sometimes small with no windows, with dim lighting, soft seating or with locks on the doors – are separate spaces used in many schools across the country to temporarily isolate children who are disruptive or show potentially dangerous behaviour. They go by different names, including time-out rooms.

And as schools struggle to embrace inclusion, these in-between spaces, as well as the practice of physically restraining students, have increasingly become the subject of debate. Some parents The Globe and Mail spoke with support the idea of a time-out or calming room, saying that, when used properly, it acts as a temporary safe space and is often part of a student’s Individual Education Plan, which is created for children who need additional help. But many others say their children with complex needs are disproportionately targeted and often isolated from their classmates in these rooms for extended periods.

Alberta is moving to ban almost all isolation rooms this fall after reports from families of their special needs children being restrained and secluded, including a disturbing lawsuit where parents of an autistic boy allege that he was locked naked in a room at a school east of Edmonton and ended up covered in his own feces.

Elsewhere, some provincial governments have issued guidelines on physical restraints and seclusion, which are described by inclusive education advocates and parents as mere suggestions that fail to keep children safe. Such guidelines vary and include measures such as not locking the door or having an adult physically present at all times. They are not enforceable, advocates say, nor do they come with an accountability mechanism.

Aside from surveys done by advocacy groups that have put a spotlight on seclusion rooms and the resulting trauma, there is an absence of data as to how often – and for how long – children are being isolated. British Columbia has recently directed districts to have policies in place, but school boards generally do not track their use, and aside from a patchwork of local procedures and guidelines, provinces do not monitor them. Inclusion advocates say this leads to misuse or children being routinely put in these rooms without their parents being informed.

“If they are to be used,” said Sheila Bennett, a professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., and a researcher of inclusive education, “it is essential that their use be documented and examined regularly for multiple things, including effectiveness.”

At the heart of the issue lie fundamental questions about how best to accommodate children such as Aaron as schools across Canada have moved toward a model of inclusive education. Teachers have reported an increase in classroom violence; other parents fear for the safety of their children. Further, families of children who have intellectual and developmental disabilities are increasingly being asked to pick up children early, start their day later or keep them home for an indefinite period because of behavioural issues, a Globe and Mail analysis earlier this year found.

Educators say that they try to use positive behavioural intervention whenever possible to help a child decompress. Seclusion and restraint are a last response to unmanageable behaviour, and not a treatment, they say, to keep others in the school safe and help the child who is acting out.

Nevertheless, Prof. Bennett said when a child with disabilities exhibits frustration and aggression, it is usually a form of communication. “If you’re physically hauling a child into a room that’s specifically set up for de-escalation, how many things as a system could we have changed prior to that happening?" she asked.

Prof. Bennett said she recently learned of more school districts in Ontario building seclusion rooms, which, she added “really horrifies me.”

“When an isolation room exists, it becomes a viable alternative for behaviour and inhibits our ability as experts and educators and compassionate people to find solutions that work better,” she said.

The Saanich School District in B.C., where Aaron attended school, was unable to comment on the specifics of his case, citing privacy.

Dave Eberwein, the district’s superintendent and chief executive officer, said in an e-mail that staff consult regularly with parents when they take steps to manage disruptive behaviour. Some students may need a “safe space when demonstrating extreme behaviours” that are harmful to themselves or others, and that the intervention would be “discontinued when the imminent danger has dissipated," he said.

The district, he added, also extensively involved professionals to train staff and develop Individual Education Plans.

For her part, Ms. Boshard said she tried to explain that Aaron cannot express himself verbally and his behaviour deteriorated because he was frustrated.

“They were not understanding him and they were treating him like he was a threat,” she said. “He never actually got a lot of education and basically he was just stuck in a room with a helmet and being treated like an invalid.”

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Most mornings, Aaron's caregiver, Sofia Sharlow-Ramirez, takes him on a walk to the beach. She says that if he could be outside all day, every day, he would. 'He's just a regular teenage boy.'

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Aaron gestures to his tablet as Ms. Sharlow-Ramirez looks on. Aaron struggles to verbalize and uses the tablet to better communicate how he's feeling or what he wants.

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Aaron could spend hours each day blowing bubbles: It's comforting and stimulating for him, Ms. Sharlow-Ramirez says. 'I think one of the best parts about working with Aaron is that he teaches you to appreciate the little things, like these bubbles.'

Ms. Boshard’s experience is not uncommon. A survey conducted in the fall of 2018 of nearly 400 parents by Inclusion Alberta, a group that advocates on behalf of people with developmental disabilities, found that more than half of families said their children with special needs were restrained or confined in seclusion rooms at school.

The report included the voices of parents who spoke of the emotional and physical trauma their children suffered at school. “I was so shocked by what the school board was planning on doing that I had to pull my child out of public education and home school. They actually showed me the old broom closet where my child would have ‘quiet time,’” one parent wrote.

Similarly, a survey done in 2017 by Inclusion BC found what it called the “routine use of restraint and seclusion in schools across the province.” About 100 people responded to questions on the use of seclusion and 63 said that an adult had prevented the student from leaving, while 25 said their child had been secluded behind a locked door.

This was the second survey done by Inclusion BC, and it found that voluntary guidelines put in place by the government after its first report in 2013 had largely been ignored and parents continued to report troubling incidents.

B.C.'s Education Minister, Rob Fleming, said his government has directed all boards to have policies that align with the guidelines, and almost all have drafted policies. He also said the government is working to ensure they have a reporting component that would inform parents and strengthen accountability. The provincial guidelines include physically restraining or isolating a student in only exceptional circumstances and that it be discontinued when the danger has passed, documenting the incident and making every effort to employ other interventions first. The guidelines also stated that any student in seclusion should be visually observed by an adult who is physically present throughout the period.

“It’s concerning to hear any report of a student being restrained or removed from a classroom as this should only occur in an emergency situation – as a very last resort,“ Mr. Fleming said in an e-mail statement.

Karen DeLong, Inclusion BC’s director of inclusive education, said guidelines do not go nearly far enough. Many parents find out “accidentally” that their child has been restrained or secluded, Ms. DeLong said, even though the B.C. guidelines say that parents are expected to be notified by the end of the school day after any incident.

The group has called for incidents tracked at the school-district level to be reported to the Ministry of Education. It has also requested Mr. Fleming to follow Alberta’s lead in banning the practice, except in very limited circumstances. (A spokesman for Alberta Education said a ministerial order to decommission seclusion rooms, issued by the previous government, still stands, but the new Education Minister, Adriana LaGrange, is reviewing all files. The ministerial order in Alberta allows school boards to apply for exemptions, but only if they can demonstrate support from parents.)

Ms. DeLong said that without a provincial order in her province, little will change.

“It’s still not enough from our advocacy standpoint to keep kids safe. We need something stronger,” she said.

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Aaron lays in the grass at a park, waiting for his behaviour consultant to arrive. It's important for him to take some time alone during the day, Ms. Sharlow-Ramirez says. 'All day he's being told what to do by me or his mom, but out here he can just be on his own.'

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Heather Jaager, the behaviour consultant, has been in the field for 25 years. She says that felt like Aaron was badly misunderstood at his school. 'There wasn't any focus on the needs behind the behaviour.'

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Aaron helps Ms. Sharlow-Ramirez put away the dishes in the dishwasher. "I'm doing everyday things with him," she says, adding that he needs the practice.

Educators agreed that some of the measures taken in schools may not be optimal, but become necessary when staff and other students are experiencing what could be a potentially dangerous situation.

David Clegg, York Region Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario president, said the use of restraints and seclusion speaks to the core of a polarizing issue: Are there limits to inclusion?

He said that some children are “so desperately in need that they’re lashing out” and the system has a responsibility to find a way to help them.

School boards and educators say that while the most disturbing cases are brought to light, many times these rooms are spaces that children need. They describe these rooms as a temporary measure to help children calm down. In fact, several families request their use for some quiet time, they say.

Dominic Cardy, New Brunswick’s Minister of Education, said they are not the first line of defence for educators, but they are a temporary tool to manage a situation. His province’s guidelines say time-out rooms cannot be locked and should not be used without a parent’s consent. They also say the rooms should only be used when less restrictive methods have been tried but were unsuccessful.

Mr. Cardy said he would be hesitant to fully ban seclusion rooms. “At this point, I would be very, very reluctant to do that because in many cases, it’s an opportunity to make sure that the rest of the students in any classroom are able to continue,” he said.

Locking a student in a room is used in “very limited situations,” argued Greg Jeffery, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. “It would be a much less-used tool, I believe, than the public is probably being led to believe,” he said.

He said the primary purpose of seclusion rooms is the involuntary confinement or isolation of a student, and should not be confused with calming rooms or sensory-type rooms.

At the same time, Mr. Jeffery said the use of these rooms, however limited, is a symptom of a larger problem of the lack of supports for students with complex needs in public education. “If we had more supports in place for students within the classroom, I can see seclusion rooms being not even needed.”

More reading: Educating Grayson

Educators have long tried to welcome students with special needs in regular classrooms – but faced with behavioural problems and violence, some school boards resort to sending those pupils home. Caroline Alphonso profiled one student’s case and asked the experts what it will take to make inclusive education work.

But Denise Scott does not know how her son, Christopher, or his team of educators would have made it through the elementary years without a room where he could calm down.

Christopher, who is now 16, regularly acted out in his Ontario school. On occasion, Ms. Scott said as many as three teachers would handle him when he could not control his behaviour.

In a soundproof room – she preferred to call it a “safe zone” rather than a seclusion room – he would crawl under a weighted blanket and sleep for as many as two hours. Ms. Scott said the door may have been locked at times, but it would only be done to keep staff, students and Christopher safe.

Integrating children, who have complex needs, is challenging, she said. And while seclusion rooms can be controversial, they can also allow school staff to deal with those challenges.

Christopher now attends high school in Victoria. He’s verbal and excels in computer programming.

“In no way did we see the school use them as punitive or [in a] negative way. I knew [the room] was a tool available to the teacher. And we were okay with that,” Ms. Scott said.

Still, not all parents can speak to a positive aspect.

Marcy Oakes’s voice shook as she told her story. She was at work when she received an e-mail from her son’s teacher.

It contained a picture of her son, Aidan, who was in Grade 7, in an isolation room. He was naked and covered in his feces, Ms. Oakes said.

Ms. Oakes and Aidan’s father have launched a lawsuit against the Elk Island Public Schools district in Alberta, among others, for the incident, which happened in September, 2015.

“I blamed myself for so long. I felt like I totally failed my son,” she said. “The whole reason I’ve had such conviction about this court case is we have to be able to trust that our kids are safe at school. I trusted them.”

None of the allegations have been proved in court.

Laura McNabb, a spokeswoman for the district, said in an e-mail that she could not comment as the matter was before the courts, but “we will strongly defend the actions of our staff.”

Aidan, now 16, has autism and is non-verbal. With the support of school staff and educational assistants, he is doing well at a nearby school division, Ms. Oakes said.

Since she went public with Aidan’s story, parents from across the country have reached out to her telling of their own struggles. And while Ms. Oakes says she believes that time-out can be used properly as an educational strategy, "there needs to be policies and procedures and monitoring and accountability from the provinces to the districts.”

“When it is matter of safety and the human rights of a child, how can that be an option?”

Meanwhile, at the end of a difficult school year with Aaron, Ms. Boshard said she was diagnosed with acute depression and missed three months of work.

With each year at home, Aaron, 14, is learning to communicate. There have been setbacks, however. Just recently, Aaron tried to smash his head through a car window. Ms. Boshard said the clinical counsellor and behavioural consultant who work with Aaron believed that the trauma of that final year in school was behind his actions.

“Aaron clearly still has emotional and psychological scars that will last his lifetime,” she said. “No parent and no child should have to go through that.”

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