A four-month-long NBC 5 Investigation reveals a secret inside dozens of North Texas schools, small rooms used to calm students with behavior problems hundreds of times throughout the school year. In some cases students with autism or other learning challenges may be forced to sit in them for part of a school day and the state does not require schools to tell parents if their child is ordered into one.
Records Obtained by NBC 5 Investigates show the Mansfield Independent School District used those rooms hundreds of times last school year.
“These types of rooms should never be used, ever, not by a school,” said Constance Wannamaker, an attorney for Disability Rights Texas, an independent nonprofit that’s part of the system set up by the federal government to protect disabled students.
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“These are not hospitals. These are not psychiatric facilities. These are schools,” said Wannamaker.
Wannamaker became concerned after NBC 5 reported the story of Edwin Villegas, an autistic 7-year-old who, according to his mother, was put into a similar room at Mansfield’s Annette Perry Elementary more than 20 times for acting out.
“He’d been scratched on the hand during a transport where four teachers kind of manhandled him to this room,” said Bridget Villegas, Edwin’s mom.
NBC 5 Investigates obtained records showing 18 Mansfield schools have some sort of room for students who need a time out.
According to school records, those rooms were used a total of about 800 times last school year, mostly at Mansfield elementary schools.
Mansfield ISD documents call the rooms “blue rooms,” “recovery rooms,” “calm rooms,” or even “isolations centers” — a term the district vows to stop using.
Mansfield’s superintendent declined an on camera interview, so NBC 5 Investigates spoke with the district’s spokesman, Richie Escovedo, who has since left the district for a job in the private sector.
During our interview, Escovedo showed NBC 5 Investigates one of the larger “recovery” rooms with padded floors, plain walls and no windows.
Others have concrete floors.
District emails obtained by NBC 5 Investigates show two Mansfield ISD staffers debate about tearing out carpet in a “blue room” at Mary Lillard Intermediate School.
One writes, “I think ripping it [the carpet] out is the best option. Other blue rooms in the district have tile or concrete and that would be easier to clean when urinated on.”
When asked if urination indicated the kids were distressed over being placed in the room, Escovedo said he disagreed with the characterization that the children were stressed because they were in the room.
He said some students urinate on the floor solely because of behavior problems.
But, Wannamaker believes the emails raise a disturbing question of whether the children are being provided access to a restroom.
Mansfield ISD said it would never prevent a student from using the restroom.
However, records suggest some students may spend a long time in recovery rooms. District records said special education students “who engage in physical aggression will move to the isolation center for the remainder of the day, or the following day, depending on when the aggression occurs.”
When asked if some students spent hours in the rooms, Escovedo said he wasn’t sure.
“I couldn't speak to any specific instance and I don't have any information on any particular instance like that so I couldn't really speculate on that,” Escovedo said.
The district said students are never left unattended, but the rooms are needed for students to cool down if they lose control or become violent. State law allows schools to give time outs, but not in a room with a door that’s locked or held shut.
But one special education student’s mother believes the doors are held shut sometimes to keep kids in the room.
“The door doesn’t lock, but if they have to restrain the door they will, so the child doesn’t get out, because some of these kids will run off,” said Mansfield parent, Isabel de Armas.
Still, de Armas supports the school putting her 10-year-old daughter in blue rooms during a meltdown. That’s part of a special education plan to which the family has agreed.
“She doesn’t like it because it’s a consequence, of course, but if she’s put in there, she needs it,” said de Armas.
Disability Rights Texas wants the Texas Education Agency to remove recovery room doors and require that schools notify parents when children are sent in there.
Currently, notification is required only if a child is physically restrained while placed in a room.
NBC 5 Investigates requested an interview to explain why they don’t require schools to notify parents but the agency declined and sent an email saying, “because of a current federal lawsuit, our lawyers have told us we cannot give any interviews on this subject.”
That lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Texas demands Mansfield turn over names of special education parents so the agency can investigate if students’ rights were violated.
Records show Mansfield rooms are bigger than the states minimum of 50 square-feet. Perry Elementary School’s smallest room is 58 square-feet and the room at Anna May Daulton Elementary School is just 56 square-feet.
During an interview with Mansfield’s spokesman, NBC 5 Investigates asked to see the smallest recovery room. Escovedo first said they would consider letting us see the room but later refused because of the lawsuit.
So NBC 5 Investigates built a wood frame to illustrate what 56 square-feet looks like. It is 7 feet by 8 feet, a little smaller than the average parking space. This gives you an idea of the size of some of those rooms.
Mansfield is not the only place with recovery rooms. NBC 5 Investigates found more DFW school districts with some sort of rooms for disruptive students and records show in some cases students are carried there kicking and screaming.
In Part 2 of our investigation, which airs Wednesday night at 10 p.m., NBC 5 Investigates will reveal the other districts with recovery rooms; some are very different from those in Mansfield. We’ll also show you how other schools get by without those rooms and what they’re doing instead.