Child with disabilities locked in seclusion room

Posted at 8:03 PM, May 16, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-17 00:44:14-04

How would you feel if your child was locked in a cell-like room without you knowing?

They're called seclusion rooms, and Denver7 found they're perfectly legal in Colorado, and used by school districts across our state.

Fort Collins child forced into cell-like room

"If you would have told me this before I'd seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it," said father Don Lovejoy.

Lovejoy said school staff at Bennett Elementary in Fort Collins have put his 7-year-old son Joshua in a "time out" or "seclusion room" more times than he can count.

"It's roughly four feet by eight feet, it's an old janitor's closet," he further explained. "It's cinder block walls, gray concrete floors, gray metal door."

Lovejoy said sometimes the school puts his son in the room every day of the week.

"Do you think that's an appropriate place to put your son?" asked Denver7 Reporter Jennifer Kovaleski.

"No, if I were to do that at home - I'd be in prison," answered Lovejoy.

Students with disabilities

Seclusion rooms are supposed to be used to calm or restrain students who become violent.

However, because Lovejoy's son suffers from PTSD and other behavioral disabilities his dad says the room does more harm than good.

"When he's not been in that room he can be a little rambunctious, he's very active, when he's in that room he's been extremely violent," said Lovejoy.

Just last month, Lovejoy said he had to take Joshua to the ER. He showed Denver7 hospital records that show doctors diagnosed him with a minor head injury from banging his head on the cinder block walls inside the seclusion room.

"I'm trusting the school to educate and keep my child safe," he said.

Daily progress sheets show school staff put him back in the same "timeout room" the next day for almost an hour.

The report said Joshua was unsafe - trying to punch, kick and scratch staff.

"I personally think they put him in there when he refuses to do his schoolwork, as an answer," said Lovejoy.

Poudre School District has been investigated before

"It is a highly concerning practice that we want to make sure is as limited as possible," said Alison Daniels director of legal services at Disability Law Colorado.

Daniels works for a non-profit that investigates inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint in schools.

She said this isn't the first time they've received complaints about the Poudre School District.

"We have had to investigate allegations in Poudre on multiple occasions," said Daniels.

Use of seclusion rooms in schools

The Colorado Department of Education (CDE) has set policies for when seclusion and restraint can be used in schools.

Under the law, Colorado schools are legally allowed to place children in seclusion but only in emergency situations when there is an imminent threat of serious bodily injury.

Daniels said once the threat ends or the child calms down, schools are required to remove kids from the rooms.

"It is a very concerning situation," she said.

In addition to CDE's rules, the Poudre School District has its own policies which state seclusion rooms can be no smaller than six feet by six feet.

Daniels also said seclusion is disproportionately used on kids with disabilities and because the state doesn't require schools to get permission from parents, they don't have a lot recourse to prevent it from happening.

Fort Collins dad wants changes

"I've tried every means possible on my own to alleviate this, and the school districts going to do what they wanna do and I think people need to know," said Lovejoy.

He said he's fighting for his son's future and wants to see the practice stopped in schools.

District response

The Poudre School district denied Denver7's request for an on-camera interview, but provided this statement:

"Poudre School District takes the safety and well-being of all students very seriously. As such, the district listens to parent concerns and partners with parents to resolve issues.

"PSD’s practice is not to discuss with the media or general public situations pertaining to specific students or other confidential matters concerning students.

"Policy JKA governs the use of physical intervention, restraint, seclusion and time-out with students in accordance with state and federal law. Parents who believe the district has violated this policy and/or governing law may pursue claims at no cost to them with agencies at the state and federal level, or may pursue the matter through the administrative hearing process or in court."

Other states

While Colorado does have some protections when it comes to the use of seclusion in schools, Denver7 found other states like Georgia and Hawaii have already banned the practice.

Georgia, Hawaii, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Texas ban all seclusion for children with disabilities.

"We really think we're at the point there needs to be some legislative or rule changes to better inform parents and have some sort of mechanism that if a parent believes it hasn't gone as it's supposed to that they can have their complaints heard," said Daniels.