Call to end putting special needs children in ‘seclusion rooms’

Children as young as six placed in isolation for hours at a time, say campaigners

The placement of children in withdrawal rooms is regarded by most special schools as a measure of last resort to protect the safety of pupils and staff. Photograph: The Irish Times

The placement of children in withdrawal rooms is regarded by most special schools as a measure of last resort to protect the safety of pupils and staff. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

Special needs campaigners have called for the introduction of official rules governing the use of “seclusion rooms” in schools to manage the behaviour of children as young as six with autism or challenging behaviour.

The placement of children in withdrawal rooms is regarded by most special schools as a measure of last resort to protect the safety of pupils and staff.

However, campaigners have said poor training meant vulnerable children were being placed in isolation for hours at a time for behaviour which could be dealt with more effectively using positive support.

In contrast to safeguards in children’s residential centres, the Department of Education does not require schools to provide data on the use of seclusion or restraint.

Inclusion Ireland, the support group for people with intellectual disabilities, said it was aware of several cases of inappropriate use of the practice involving children with disabilities in schools around the country.

Overuse

The group said parents had reported overuse of seclusion, prolonged periods of seclusion and seclusion for minor behavioural issues.

“The use of seclusion and restraint should not be tolerated in Irish schools,” said Paddy Connolly, Inclusion Ireland’s chief executive.

“Every effort must be made to eliminate the use of such practices.”

“To enable this, there must be adequate numbers of staff in each class trained in positive behaviour strategies and crisis management. This training prevents minor issues from escalating.”

The Special Needs Parents Association said parents had mixed views, with some advocating an outright ban and others stating the practice should be used sparingly.

“It’s an area that needs to be regulated,” said the group’s chairwoman, Lorraine Dempsey.

“We must ensure there is proper training of staff and there is certainty that it’s being used appropriately and as a measure of last resort,”

The Department of Education said the withdrawal of a child from the classroom did not require its authorisation.

“It is a matter for the school authorities, the child and the parents or guardians of the child concerned,” it said in a statement.

The department said guidance was available from State agencies such as the National Educational Psychological Services on how children with behavioural needs could best be supported in school.

Special schools contacted by The Irish Times reported they had detailed policies in place and the use of seclusion or safe spaces was in order to ensure pupil safety and to prevent self-harm or harm to other pupils.

Most reported that when such a room was in use, a trained staff member was present outside, monitoring the student at all times.

Inclusion Ireland, however, said any time that seclusion or restraint was used in a school it should be reported to an independent oversight body similar to Hiqa, the Health Information and Quality Authority.

Punishment

“The only time that seclusion should ever be used is where it is more dangerous to the child not to do so. Seclusion must never be used as punishment of a child,” Mr Connolly said.

The National Council for Special Education, an advisory body, is due to issue policy advice on the use of withdrawal rooms to the department shortly. A spokeswoman for the council declined to comment, on the basis that the report had yet to be finalised.

The department said where any concern was raised regarding the management of pupils’ behaviour in a school, it might arrange for an inspection.

It said guidance on dealing with challenging behaviour was also available from the department.