Gov. JB Pritzker's order restricts 'timeout' rooms in schools

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday ordered the state’s public schools to immediately restrict the use of isolation rooms for students who don’t pose a clear safety risk.

The Democrat said he directed the Illinois State Board of Education to issue emergency rules governing so-called timeout rooms after a published report found tens of thousands of instances in which schools secluded students without proper justification.

“Isolated seclusion will end now,” Pritzker said in a statement. “It traumatizes children, does lasting damage to the most vulnerable and violates the most deeply held values of my administration and the state of Illinois.”

Illinois law allows for students to be placed in “isolated timeout” if they pose safety risks to themselves or others. They’re also known as “calming,” “reflection,” or “quiet” rooms.

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But an investigation by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica published Tuesday examined more than 20,000 records detailing instances in which children were put in timeout rooms in 2017 and 2018. Of those, roughly 12,000 included enough detail to determine the reason for isolation and in more than one-third of those cases, employees documented no safety reason.

The records also often include the reactions of the students inside. Aides described how children were crying, screaming, begging to be released, ramming their heads into padded walls and prying at doors.

The emergency rules don’t ban timeout rooms, but they may only be used for therapeutic purposes or to protect the safety of students and staff members in the school. The door of the room must remain unlocked, and the student must be accompanied by a “trained adult.”

Democratic Rep. Jonathan Carroll of Northbrook said he would file legislation banning the use of timeout rooms. The former special education teacher retold on his website his own experience as a child forced into such seclusion. Carroll says he still has nightmares about it.

“Isolation was my personal hell,” he said.