Some parents, experts question ‘calm-down’ rooms in schools

Hillcrest defends calm-down room for disruptive children

  • Sunderland Elementary School’s calm-down room, with wall padding, tent and pillows. Recorder Staff/Tom Relihan

  • Landon Cummings, 6, of Turners Falls, plays with sand toys with friends at home, after his mother removed him from Hillcrest Elementary School over the school's use of a sparse calm-down room with bare concrete walls. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

  • At left, Hillcrest Elementary School’s calm-down room as photographed in January by parent Jessica York. Above, Recorder reporter Tom Relihan’s February photo of the same room, which includes the addition of murals on the concrete walls and colorful pillows.

  • Landon Cummings wrestles with his friend Kilian Hughes at Landon's home in Turners Falls, where he is now home-schooled. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

  • A calm-down space in Federal Street School in Greenfield. Recorder Staff/Tom Relihan—

  • The Wellness Center at the Federal Street School in Greenfield, a place to take upset students before using a calm-down room. Recorder Staff/Tom Relihan—...

  • Bean bag seating in the Wellness Center at Federal Street School in Greenfield. Recorder Staff/Tom Relihan—...

  • A calm-down space in Newton School in Greenfield doubles as a reading room. Recorder Staff/Tom Relihan—...

  • A wellness center in Newton School in Greenfield, called “The Spa.”

Published: 3/29/2016 10:04:14 PM

MONTAGUE — Six-year-old Landon Cummings had grown so disruptive during his class at Hillcrest Elementary School in November that his teacher decided she had to remove him from the room.

At many other Franklin County schools, teachers deal with a disruptive student by trying to calm the child in a quiet corner of a classroom. If that doesn’t work, they send the student to a room in another part of the building equipped with padded walls, bean bag chairs or other soft surfaces, where teachers work to calm the child.

Hillcrest took a different approach on at least three occasions in November, sending Landon to its “calm-down room,” a converted storage room with bare concrete walls and no windows other than a small one in the door. During his stays inside, Landon banged his head against the concrete and was left with a headache, bump and bruised forehead, according to his parents and a school nurse’s report they provided to The Recorder.

The school’s treatment of their son prompted Landon’s parents to remove him from Hillcrest in January. He is now being homeschooled.

“If you are hearing a little kid bash his head against the wall, you are allowing him to self-harm,” said Landon’s mother, Jessica Robinson. She said that her son was coming home too often with bruises on his forehead. “Over my dead body is my son going back to that school. If I was doing that in my own home my son would be taken away from me.”

Robinson said that when school officials contacted her about her son’s head injuries and behavior issues, they never mentioned the room. But then, in January, she heard about the room from another parent — and pulled him from the school.

Officials at the school and the Gill-Montague Regional School District declined to discuss Landon’s case, citing student confidentiality. But they defended the room, which they said can be used as often as three times a week for students whose behavior has become threatening to classmates and adult staff members.

“It’s about safety,” said Principal Sarah Burstein. “People are often surprised. They say, ‘What could a 6-year-old do?’ Unfortunately, there are situations where a student could become physically aggressive to the point of hurting an adult.”

Experts say, however, that such rooms often do more harm than good, by interrupting children’s learning, isolating them rather than teaching constructive ways to deal with frustration and — as in Landon’s case — leaving them vulnerable to injury.

In the last few months, the families of Landon and at least one other student have pulled their children from Hillcrest Elementary School due at least partly to concerns about their children’s experience in the calm-down room.

After The Recorder began asking questions about the room earlier this year, Hillcrest administrators had the art teacher paint a colorful butterfly, caterpillar and smiling sun on its concrete block walls. School officials purchased pillows for the room last year and are now considering pads for the walls as well.

“Our pupil services director reports that two area districts report having their calm-down rooms partially padded, so we will be looking into this further,” Gill-Montague Regional School District Superintendent Michael Sullivan told The Recorder.

The Disability Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Boston, is now looking into the complaints of parents accusing Hillcrest Elementary School of child “abuse and neglect,” according to Christine Griffin, the director of the center.

“Now is the time for these schools to take a good look at themselves. Is this the type of education they want to provide to students with disabilities?” said Griffin.

Mounting frustrations

According to his mother, Landon has a history of behavioral issues. At age 3, he would clench his fists and pull out his hair out of frustration when he was having trouble expressing himself. Over the last few years, the aggressive behavior simmered down, but when first grade rolled around, new issues bubbled up. He stopped talking.

The school’s calm-down room only made matters worse, she said. She thinks her son’s acting out and self-injury at school was a result of his experience in the room. “I don’t believe that they should use it at all.”

“They have nap time. What if he passed out and never woke back up?” said Robinson. “That is the only child that I have.”

According to Robinson and the nurse’s records, Landon hurt his head in the room at least three times in November.

A nurse’s report from Nov. 9 states that Landon banged his head on the door two times and punched himself in the head several times while in the calm-down room. The report noted “reddened areas on forehead. No swelling.”

The report went on to say there were “no s/s (a medical abbreviation for ‘signs or symptoms’) concussion.” However, it noted that the nurse was “unable to assess pupils” because the light on the otoscope she used “needs charging.”

The nurse’s report states that school officials sent home a “head injury sheet” with Landon and that a school counselor was to contact his mother about his self-harming behavior. A report from the next day noted, “Teacher called to report that Head Injury Sheet still in student’s bag. Unknown if reviewed by mother.”

Another nurse’s report, dated Nov. 19, states that Landon hit his head on the door of the calm-down room, then complained of a headache. On Nov. 30, a new report said that Landon hit his head on the wall and had a small bump on the center of his forehead. When the nurse tried to apply a cold compression to his head, he threw the ice pack on the ground.

Robinson, the boy’s mother, said after receiving calls from school officials about her son hitting his head, she took him to the doctor. She said the doctor did not find any signs of concussion, but she noticed that her son’s behavior at home had shifted.

“When he was coming home from school he wasn’t happy,” she said. “He just sat on the couch like a zombie not doing anything, not wanting to do anything.”

While attending the school, Robinson said, her son refused to sleep in his bed. She would chase him around the living room, sometimes staying up until midnight trying to get him tucked in. Since he began homeschooling, her son has been able to sleep soundly again.

Now, she said, she is trying to get her son into therapy. “My son would come home and he wouldn’t even talk to me,” she said. “I think he has some unresolved issues with them doing that to him.”

Hillcrest Principal Burstein said confidentiality rules prohibited her from discussing Landon’s case. But she stressed that teachers bring students to the room only after less-extreme measures have failed. She said teachers are first encouraged to use time-out spaces within classrooms.

Other techniques Hillcrest teachers use to calm students include asking them to concentrate on their breathing, she said.

Sometimes students are sent to a different classroom, in hopes that a change of surroundings will help. Sometimes school officials seek help from outside social service agencies with expertise in crisis intervention.

When all other methods of soothing a child fail, students use the calm-down room for a maximum of 30 minutes at a time and, on rare occasions, multiple times in one day, Burstein said.

Whenever possible, a teacher or aide stays with the child in the calm-down room. But in cases where a teacher feels she might be in danger, she could leave a child alone in the room and watch from outside through a narrow window on the door, said the principal.

While administrators said the room is to protect students and teachers from violence, the parents ask why the school didn’t protect their children from injuring themselves.

Another parent, Jessica York, said she asked Hillcrest staff to call her if her son, 7-year-old Kilian, was placed in the calm-down room so she could come to pick him up. She said those calls never came, even though teachers kept putting him in the room and Kilian came home with light bruises on his arms.

So she pulled her son from the school.

York said she realizes the importance of crisis intervention spaces, but disapproves of how the room is equipped and used at Hillcrest. She thinks teachers should play music in the space, give the children some soft books to look at, or give them pictures to flip through.

Her son also has behavioral issues, but she said school administrators didn’t know how to deal with her son’s episodes. Sometimes he would run from the classroom, and even from the building. She said they used the room to push her son aside, effectively depriving him of a full education. “What gives you the right to do that to my child,” she said. “A lot of parents are low-income. They feel like, ‘What is my other choice?”

York is now paying out of pocket to homeschool her son.

School officials also declined to comment on Kilian’s case, citing student confidentiality.

Contrast with other schools

Hillcrest’s approach stands in contrast to other Franklin County schools.

The Recorder contacted officials at all of Franklin County’s public schools to seek information on how they deal with disruptive students. Officials at more than 90 percent of the schools responded.

Some, such as schools in the Orange Elementary School District, reported having no calming rooms, choosing instead to deal with disruptive children in the classroom. Others that do have rooms equip them with padded surfaces — or, at the very least, bean bag chairs — to guard against injury. Other than Hillcrest, none of the schools leave children unaccompanied inside a calming room.

“Our philosophy is we never send a child into a room alone,” said Northfield Elementary School Principal Tom King. He said that in some circumstances a disruptive child is sent to a neighboring classroom to sit at a desk and reflect while a teacher is present.

Experts say exclusionary time-out is next to useless in an educational setting. They say removing a child from the classroom can cause the student to fall behind in school, heighten anxiety, and perpetuate a cycle of behavioral issues.

“Anytime you pull them out of class, out of learning and stick them back in later, they feel behind,” said Michael Krezmien, an associate professor of special education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who also worked as a teacher at a special needs school in Chicago. He said his school did not have, nor did it need, a calm-down room.

“Many of these children have trauma histories that make physical intervention re-traumatizing,” said Nick Fleisher, the vice president of Clinical and Support Options, a nonprofit that does community outreach crisis intervention work.

It’s best to find a way to calm a disruptive child in the classroom setting, he said. Physical isolation, he said, should be a last resort.

Adam Garand, the director of student services for Greenfield’s Public Schools, said calm-down rooms are sometimes needed to ensure the safety of children and educators when a student has spiraled out of control, but they need to be designed and used properly.

“If a child gets out of control or becomes physically aggressive, you can place them in this space and it prevents the child from hurting another child, or a staff member, or themselves in a larger, uncontained area,” Garand said. “It’s a place to let them act out their issue.”

Many of Greenfield’s higher-needs students are educated at the Discovery School at Four Corners. There, Principal Suzanne Sullivan said the school takes an “inclusion” approach, trying to place students in the most traditional class setting possible.

Students with more severe behavioral or developmental issues may be educated in a special education classroom and sent to the nearby “ready room” if they begin to lose control. That room is large, with various activity stations where students can undertake a series of tasks to ensure they’ve calmed enough to return to class. If they become physically aggressive, the room has a small, moveable padded cubicle where they can be placed for their own safety, Garand said.

A second calming space is located within the main special education classroom. A reporter was able to observe the room in use, as a paraprofessional worked to calm a student by using a gymnastics pad to contain his movement while allowing him to work out his frustration.

Garand said the department has recently designed new rooms at the other two elementary schools for students with behavioral issues. At Federal Street Elementary School, the dedicated calming room — a small space with a bean bag chair next to social worker Christine Doe’s office — is used only if students become physically aggressive, Doe said. She added that an adult always accompanies students in the room. Alternatively, the student can go to the new space, the Wellness Center, which has a beanbag lounge, a small exercise bike and a spot for students to sit and settle down.

Garand said the calming rooms he’s seen in other districts take a variety of forms, but many have pads on the walls.

“It’s so if a kid’s hitting or kicking the wall, they don’t hurt themselves,” he said. “It’s mostly with high-needs programs associated with behavioral or emotional problems, or significantly disabled students with no coping mechanisms that might head-butt, or bite.”

There are no federal guidelines for how these rooms need to be equipped to keep students from hurting themselves. Regulations issued by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education explain that the spaces in schools used for time-out must be clean, safe and sanitary, but provide no further guidance on how to equip and use the rooms.

“If it’s not in the regulation, then it’s up to the district’s discretion. We can’t foresee every circumstance,” said Jacqueline Reis, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Education.

State regulations prohibit students from being placed in a space where they are unable to leave. While there is no lock on the calm-down room door at Hillcrest Elementary School, teachers can sometimes hold the door shut when a child is inside, said Michael Sullivan, the superintendent.

According to an advisory issued in July by the State Director for Special Education, “Students must never be locked in a room. For students displaying self-injurious behavior, a staff member must be physically present in the same setting with the student.”

For now, school at home

About half of the Franklin County public schools surveyed reported using calming rooms. Other schools said that they use a variety of other techniques to deal with disruptive children.

At Sunderland Elementary School, there’s a room for students in crisis that has a window overlooking Mount Sugarloaf and Route 116. A blanket and pillows are set up, creating a lounge-like area on the sill. Most of the walls are covered by padded gymnastics mats to prevent students from hurting themselves.

Deerfield Elementary School Principal Jeanine Heil said her school has protocols for vacating classrooms, but in extreme circumstances students may be accompanied by staff members to a small room with a beanbag chair. That room has no pads on the walls, but is located next to an occupational and physical therapy room that does have gym mats, inflatable balls and blankets. The walls are made of drywall instead of concrete.

Newton School in Greenfield has a small calming room, too, and has recently begun using another space similar to Federal Street’s Wellness Center, which they’ve dubbed The Spa.

These are just a handful of scenarios for how schools handle students with behavioral issues, but Landon’s mother said her son will never be put in a calming room again.

She is homeschooling him and has no intention of re-enrolling him in school. They start their days with breakfast and a reading session in their Turners Falls apartment. Sometimes they go to the library to pick out books, read and play games. She said her son has transformed since homeschooling started.

“My kid talks to me. He has turned back into a tiny human being who has his own mind and can tell you when he is upset,” she said. “A six-year-old should love school.”

Lisa Spear can be contacted at lspear@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 280


Tom Relihan can be
contacted at
trelihan@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264




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