Earlier this week, NBC 5 Investigates revealed how often the Mansfield Independent School District put disruptive students with special needs in small closet-like rooms after they act out.
NBC 5 Investigates requested records from more than 35 other school districts in North Texas and found at least five school districts that have some sort of dedicated rooms used for time outs, mostly for special education students.
At Shepard Elementary School in Plano, there’s a small room slightly bigger than a closet that’s used for students who need a place to calm down.
The room has a few pads on the floor, a security camera on the ceiling and a large door handle on the outside of the door.
Constance Wannamaker, an attorney for Disability Rights Texas, a nonprofit group that investigates potential abuse of Texas students as part of a system set-up by congress, said they are concerned with schools that use the rooms with a door.
Wannamaker fears some schools use so called “recovery rooms” as a place to punish children, closing them in, against their will. Texas law allows teachers to give students time outs, but not in rooms with doors that are locked or held shut.
“Schools have no business building padded rooms and locking kids in them,” said Wannamaker.
Disability Rights Texas wants the state to order schools to remove the doors and to investigate how many schools have these rooms.
Plano school officials refused to answer questions about the room on camera. In an email response, Plano said a number of schools have “cool down” rooms but they don’t keep an official count for how many times they’ve been used. They say the rooms are not used for discipline; they are simply a place for kids to cool off.
They also said teachers never hold the doors shut. The camera is just an extra layer of security and they require staff to stay with students in the room.
At Lake Worth Independent School District, the rooms are even used for mainstream students.
“We are doing this to protect the student as much as we are anybody else,” said Lake Worth Interim-Superintendent Weldon Hafley.
The district believes they’re necessary when students become out of control or violent.
Hafley said Lake Worth follows a state law which requires time out rooms to be more than 50 square feet in size but couldn’t guarantee that the door hadn’t been closed. Hafley did say that closing the door wasn’t normal protocol and that the rooms are used as a last resort.
Records from Marilyn J. Miller Elementary School in Lake Worth show cases of first, second and third graders “hitting or kicking staff” and the teachers responding by physically restraining the students who are then “carried to the recovery room,” also known as the “file room.”
“You de-escalate, is what you try to do, by talking them down. That’s your whole purpose and you always de-escalate before you restrain,” said Hafley.
The state does allow schools to restrain students who endanger staff, but staff may not use force to place students in a time out.
Disability Rights Texas fears some schools force students into the rooms, treating them more like jail cells.
“They don’t like it when kids talk back to them. They don’t like it when kids don’t listen. And they don’t know what to do with them and if they have a room where they could put a kid who in their mind is just being a little punk, they’re going to do it,” said Wannamaker.
The issue gained more attention after NBC 5 reported about Edwin Villegas, an autistic student in Mansfield.
His mom said teacher put him in a so called “blue room” more than 20 times without telling her.
“I would have expected a Zen, “calm down” kind of room, or what have you, and what we saw was a concrete looking kind of jail room,” said Edwin’s mom, Bridget Villegas.
The Mansfield ISD would not comment on the specifics of the case. Through records, NBC 5 Investigates found 18 Mansfield schools have “blue rooms” or “recovery rooms.” The district has even called them isolation centers in the past, but said that name is no longer in use. District records showed the rooms were used as many as 800 times in one school year.
Many larger school districts said they don’t use recovery rooms. In fact, Fort Worth, Arlington and Dallas, the three largest school districts in North Texas, said they are not aware of any rooms like that in their districts.
Texas Christian University Child Development Professor Casey Call said many schools instead use cooling off areas in classrooms to help students regain control without being removed.
Some also have sensory areas where students use toys or music to calm down.
“You’re not helping the child if you’re standing at the door trying to keep them in the room. What the adult should be doing is mentoring the child on what they need to calm down,” said Call.
In the Granbury Independent School District, officials also declined to be interviewed on camera. However, in a statement, the district said teachers always stay with students in their calm room which is the size of a regular classroom.
Some students still aren’t happy about being placed in the room by the evidence of holes kicked in the walls.
The Birdville Independent School District has calm rooms within special education classrooms, but they’ve removed the doors so there’s no chance a staff member can close a child in.
Critics argue that the state should require schools to get rid of doors and to tell parents each time the rooms are used.
“Parents can’t really get in there and fix the situation if they don’t know about it,” said Wannamaker.
The Texas Education Agency declined to answer questions about whether they have any plans to change the current rules to require parent notification or removal of doors.