State lawmakers consider ban on school isolation rooms

Is it therapy or punishment?

That was the question facing state lawmakers Tuesday looking into the controversial practice of using so-called "isolation rooms" in schools across the state.

Lawmakers heard some harrowing stories that sounded like school-sanctioned torture.

"That was...really overwhelming and harrowing and I was crying the whole time,” said 20-year-old Joey Magyar.

Magyar demonstrated for state lawmakers how he was pinned against a wall for nearly an hour at a northwest suburban special education school four years ago.

"It really sticks with me the way he mocked me... made fun of me and laughed about it,” Magyar said.

The hearing on so-called isolation rooms or quiet rooms in Illinois schools was spurred by a recent Chicago Tribune and Pro Publica investigation which found Illinois children had been put into isolation at least 20,000 times in the 2017-2018 school year, with virtually no accounting or oversight.

The investigation also found that far too often isolation and restraint is used to punish students, with kids being left alone and unsupervised for hours rather than a method to calm children who are acting out or harming themselves.

"There's no evidence that shows seclusion rooms are effective for disciplinary efforts nor for therapeutic interventions. Like zero,” said Kyle Hillman of the National Association of Social Workers.

Parent Venessa Fawley told lawmakers her 9-year-old autistic daughter was restrained.

"What really angered me was the fact that such criminal abuse went on for so long with little accountability. Where was the oversight? Who was in charge?" Fawley asked.

Legislation banning the practice has been introduced by state representative Jonathan Carroll, who says he still bears the emotional scars of being restrained as a kid with ADHD.

"To this day there's times when being alone is scary, really tough for me because of that experience as a kid,” Carroll said.

Governor Pritzker issued a temporary ban on the use of isolation rooms when the story broke last November. But that temporary ban comes to an end this spring.