A Look Inside A ‘Seclusion Room’ At Illinois School
Earlier this year in May, a knock on Beth Sandy's door would be the start to a months long investigation into her son's former school, making it the twenty first investigation of abuse since May.
Beth, a resident of North Western Suburban Chicago, had figured she was in violation of truancy laws because of pulling her son from Gages Lake School a week before. Her son Staley, a 7-year old, had complained to her about a "Scary office," and even began hiding under his bed when the school bus pulled up.
What she didn't know was that the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services was waiting on the other side of the door, wanting to talk to her about her son's school. They gave Beth the news her son was physically abused by the school.
According to the school's website, "Gages Lake School is SEDOL’s public elementary therapeutic day school for kindergarten through fifth grade students who have significant emotional and behavioral needs." Staley, named after the Alice in Chains singer, was a student at the school due to having a severe diagnosis of ADHD.
The abuse claims come from students and, in Staley's case, an administrator. All reports revolved around a space the school calls "The Office." Students are sent to the space, which is outfitted with four "Seclusion Rooms"- a small brick room with no windows, some with externally locking doors, some without. The details of the abuse cases are confirmed by surveillance cameras in the rooms, and include grabbing children tightly by the wrist, pushing them into the brick walls, and even blatantly throwing children on the ground.
The investigations focus mostly around two teaching aides. Nicholas Izquierdo is facing criminal charges for using excessive force. The second aide, Jennifer Aguirre, died by suicide in August after getting word of the DCFS was investigating her treatment of students at the school. She was an 18 year employee of the school.
The video Staley's parents were shown by the DCFS have been released to the media, and shows him in one of the "Seclusion Rooms" without a door, but one of the aides being investigated was sitting in a rolling chair and blocking the entrance. When attempting to leave the room, the aide grasped Staley's wrist and shoved it into the wall. Presumably in pain, Staley pushes his foot into the aid, who stands up explosively, puts Staley in a head lock and rips a folded paper out of his hand.
Investigators were tipped off by an unnamed staff member at the school earlier this year, telling them "None of the children at this school are safe."
Beth Sandy said more video shows that Staley had been locked in one of the rooms without required-by-law supervision. She said he continued to knock on the window, trying to get someone's attention. During Propublica's own investigation, Beth provided a snippet of one of his seclusion time's reports. It showed the reason to be that he made mess after putting his finger over the spout, and didn't follow the staff's instructions to walk and not run.
The seclusion rooms are intended to be a space for the students to go and calm down if they pose a safety concern to themselves, other students or staff. Of the 1,700 seclusions (the second highest amount in the state of Illinois), almost 1/4 occurred without a concern of safety. The trend the DCFS is finding shows the students had not followed a direction, or had disrespected staff.
The first case of abuse investigated by the DCFS occurred in May, when another 7 year old boy got off the school bus and complained of his butt hurting. When asked if he had fallen, the child told his father a teacher at the school made him fall in "The Office." After pressure from the boy's father, administrators reviewed video from the incident. They watched as their aide grabbed both of the ankles of the student and pulled hard, causing him to fall on his back and butt. The school looked further into the videos, and made multiple calls to investigators with the DCFS.
Illinois' education board is working to ban secluding students in rooms in light of the abuse allegations towards Gages Lake School.