England’s school seclusion rooms still form a landscape of atrocity and shame

A primary school seclusion room

England learned this week that, across England, schools are converting toilet stalls into “isolation booths”. Other English schools use portable isolation booths. That means a cardboard box is brought to the classroom and placed over the child. Educators like to point out that there are isolation rooms and there are confined booths, and they’re not the same. Isolation rooms are solitary confinement. Confined booths are stalls where children face the wall in perfect silence, often for hours on end, often for days and even weeks at a time. These are the distinctions that are meant to prove the humanity and educative function of time spent in school. At least your six- or eight- or ten-year-old child is not spending hours in a cardboard box. A salient problem in this narrative is that England learned this lesson last year, and the year before, and the year before thatMeanwhile, sales of isolation booths to schools are booming.  

Last week, another report alerted the nation to the widespread use of seclusion rooms. The Centre for Mental Health published Trauma, challenging behaviour and restrictive interventions in schools. Though disturbing the findings are not surprising, are in fact altogether familiar: “Exposure to trauma is relatively common among young people … Challenging behaviour and trauma are associated. Young people who show challenging behaviour are more likely than average to have been exposed to trauma … Thousands of young people are subject to some form of restrictive intervention in schools in England every year for challenging behaviour. There is reason to believe that these interventions have a negative impact on mental health, irrespective of previous trauma exposure. Young people who have experienced trauma in the past are especially at risk of experiencing psychological harm from restrictive interventions. For example, exclusion and seclusion can echo relational trauma and systemic trauma …As a result, these interventions may cause harm and potentially drive even more challenging behaviour.”

Solitary confinement harms children. Solitary confinement is infinitely and measurably worse for vulnerable children. Solitary confinement creates a cycle that begins in trauma and then cycles, repeatedly, through trauma, each time more deeply felt and each time more damaging. Isolation booth sales are booming.

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, says she has heard “horror stories” of children in isolation for days, weeks, months on end. What qualifies as “challenging” behavior. One school website boasts, “Students with inappropriate hairstyles will be placed in isolation.” In another instance, a child was placed in isolation because she forgot to bring her planner. Her father was told either bring the planner or bring £5: “The school said bring in £5 for a new planner and she can come out. It’s ridiculous, having to pay a ransom to get your daughter out of ‘prison’ just because she forgot her planner for the first time ever.”

These isolation rooms and booths and boxes are not some underground, hidden, clandestine practice. They’re widespread, on websites, in official policy. They are and they have been, and they form today as they have formed a landscape of atrocity and shame. While research reports are important, the last five years of reports demonstrates that that is not enough. How many more times must we “discover” that throwing children into seclusion rooms, no matter what they’re called, is wrong? Why do we need to discuss whether the rooms “work” or are too “costly”? What about the cost to children’s lives? What about the cost, as well, to the very concept of education? What does a child learn when exclusion is called inclusion, terror is called calm, and a war on children is called education? But there is a flickering light. Later this month, advocates are holding a Lose the Booth conference. Another school is possible.

(Photo Credit: BBC) (Image Credit: Centre for Mental Health)

Isolation Rooms and “The Feral Child”: What Impact Does Social Deprivation Have On Children?

Earlier this year, a young student in the United Kingdom attempted to take her own life in an isolation room at her school where she had quietly spent her days for more than a month. The child, whose identity has not been disclosed, lives with mental health issues as well as an autism spectrum disorder. 

Isolation rooms have become a common form of punishment for students in the United States as well as in the U.K. Often, the children who are sent to spend their days alone and in silence, without stimulus, in these spaces have autism spectrum disorders or other special learning needs. 

While there is little scientific evidence to track the impact that days spent in quiet isolation have on developing minds, anyone familiar with child psychology knows that a lack of socialization and stimulus is detrimental to development. In fact, a landmark case in developmental psychology directly deals with the results of being kept in isolation early in life. 

In 1970, thirteen-year-old Genie Wiley was discovered by social services in her family home in California, where she had spent most of her life in isolation, locked away in a small room. Genie’s father often tied her to a chair and discouraged her from speaking, crying or making any noise at all. 

When Genie was finally taken out of isolation and taken into the care of psychologists, the thirteen-year-old tested on the mental level of a one-year-old. She was originally thought to be autistic. She was mute and incontinent, and only responded to her own name and the word “sorry.” Her mannerisms were described as rabbit-like and she was branded as “the feral child”.

Genie’s case is most well-known for the insight it provided into the process of language acquisition. Although she was a strong non-verbal communicator, psychologists struggled to teach her language, and especially grammar, suggesting that she missed the critical window of language learning. However, Genie’s extreme case also shows the drastic impacts that a lack of socialization and stimulus can have on a child. 

After working with psychologists, Genie became able to communicate with drawings and did well on intelligence tests. She grew to enjoy music and learned to play. However, after years spent in isolation, she was never able to communicate or socialize normally. Eventually, research funding ran out and she was sent to live in a foster home, and little is known about what happened to her since. 

Genie’s case was a drastic one. She was abused and kept in near complete isolation for a decade. Yet, she demonstrates that putting a child away in isolation is not a neutral action. It is a punishment that instills its own kind of trauma, particularly for developing children. This trauma is heightened for children on the autism spectrum or others who may have difficulties socializing with their peers and yet schools often use isolation rooms as a “dumping ground” for exactly this kind of student.

Genie Wiley

(Photo Credit 1: Cambridgeshire Live) (Photo Credit 2: The Guardian)