DENVER — As two separate investigations into a "seclusion room" at McAuliffe International School where students of color were allegedly locked in without adult supervision continue, a mom at the school said Tuesday her child benefited from using the room and argued her family's experience also needs to be considered by district officials.
“It opened up a whole world to him because he was always stuck with maybe ten kids in elementary school,” said Jessie Hawthorn, adding her experience at McAuliffe with her adopted son, Sedik Mote, was largely positive. “When he came here, this was the first school in his career where he had a consistent set of staff and students to be friends with and the special education team was just really great here — better than any other school that he had been to.”
Her son has autism and was on an Individualized Education Program (IEP), a prerequisite to support the use of a de-escalation room as an intervention tactic by district standards.
“I adopted him and his older sister from Ethiopia in 2011 and he had a rough go all through elementary school,” Hawthorn said.
But here, he thrived, Hawthorn said, even despite some behavioral issues.
“He was taken to a room to calm down, but he says it had a punching bag, pillows and he was able to pet a therapy dog named Calder,” Hawthorn said. “There was a great para-professional here who I think is still here, Mr. TJ, who my son really loves. He’s a Black teacher and he still has... he just loves this school because of Mr. TJ and Mr. Dennis.”
Hawthorn shared her story with Denver7 just a day after interim principal Micah Klaver was put on leave amid the ongoing investigation into the seclusion room at McAuliffe.
On Monday, several Denver Pubic Schools officials provided an update into allegations made by a whistleblower at McAuliffe, who claimed that at least three students of color “were quite literally dragged through the school screaming down the hallway” and then eventually locked inside Room 121E from the outside, and urged anyone with any knowledge of the use of seclusion rooms to come forward.
“We encourage anybody who has any knowledge of this practice throughout Denver Public Schools for you to reach out to Denver Public Schools,” Board of Education Vice President Auon’tai Anderson said during the news conference Monday.
Other board members, like DPS secretary Michelle Quattlebaum, called the allegations "staggering" and called on those responsible to be held accountable and for state lawmakers to introduce legislation "to eliminate any resemblance of an opportunity for racism from all of our institutions.”
DPS: 3 students placed in 'seclusion room' at McAuliffe International School
But Hawthorn and other parents insist that it was not that way for them.
“It’s so dramatic what was presented at that press conference yesterday, about kids screaming until they fall asleep and being left alone in an incarceration room,” Hawthorn said. “There would be no adults here that would allow that to happen.”
Board member Scott Esserman, however, said during Monday's news conference that what happened at McAuliffe during the 2022-2023 school year "was not de-escalation, but seclusion," which are not the same thing.
Students go into de-escalation rooms voluntarily and are accompanied by an adult at all times while the door remains open, according to district officials. In a seclusion scenario, a student who is experiencing escalating emotions is locked inside a room by themselves until they calm down — something district officials said it is not allowed in any of their schools, but nevertheless ended up happening at McAuliffe.
Still, Hawthorn said, it was because of a de-escalation room at the school that her son is now thriving.
“And it’s because of how well it went here,” Hawthorn said of McAuliffe. “He was prepared. He passed every class in 9th and 10th grade and he’s on track to graduate early. He only has two credits left. Whatever it is that my son needed to kind of get regulated, Kurt Dennis would give him trail mix almost every day because he was starving after school and he still talks about that. ‘Oh, that’s the principal that would give me a snack every day after school.’”
Both the Denver Police Department and DPS are now conducting separate investigations into the seclusion room.
What experts say about the pros and cons of seclusion and de-escalation rooms
Experts Denver7 spoke with on Tuesday said seclusion and de-escalation rooms can be beneficial when implemented and used appropriately.
Maddie Reid, the co-owner of Evoke Behavioral Health, an ABA Center and Licensed Day Treatment program providing intensive therapeutic and educational services for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (I/DD), and other behavioral issues, said seclusion is legal in the state of Colorado in education settings, and added that it's up to each district to determine its own policy around them.
Reid works with nearly every school district in the Denver-metro area, and said seclusion rooms or de-escalation rooms can be helpful for children who engage in dangerous behavior.
“There are definitely times when that is the safest option for that child and the adults and peers around them,” Reid said of seclusion rooms, explaining that their use as punishment or as a simple convenience to other disciplinary options are totally inappropriate.
Reid also said if a child is a danger to themselves and others, there isn’t always someone in the room with them. She said in Sidek Mote’s case, it sounds like the room provided the perfect service and treatment.
“A de-escalation room like that sounds ideal for a lot of the kids that I’ve worked with,” Reid said. “And then, if there’s a child who’s requiring seclusion, that’s a bigger question of training for the staff and asking, 'Do you have the best placement for that child?'”