PHOENIX — State lawmakers took the first steps Monday to what some hope will be outlawing the “isolation rooms'' used by some schools to deal with problem students.
On a voice vote, the House gave preliminary approval to requiring parental consent before putting youngsters into these rooms.
The only exception in HB 2476 would be in cases where a student poses “imminent physical harm to self or others.'' In those situations, however, the school has to make reasonable attempts to notify the parent, in writing, by the end of the day.
But Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said she sees this as just a first step to deal with the most immediate issue of parental ignorance of what is happening to their children at school. She eventually wants a state law banning the practice entirely.
How many schools have the rooms — and how many kids are put into them each year — remains an unknown.
Melissa Van Hook, spokeswoman for the East Valley Autism Network, said the list of what incidents schools have to report to the state does not include putting a child, whether in regular education or with special needs, into an isolation room. “So the state has no way to track it.”
The use of these rooms apparently came as a surprise to several legislators. And Townsend herself said she learned about them only after a lawsuit was filed against the Deer Valley Unified School District.
Leslie Noyes, the plaintiff in that case, told members of the House Education Committee earlier this month she went to school and asked to see her child.
“I discovered him in the special education room, in a room the size of an elevator in this building, lying on the floor completely unresponsive,'' she said. “As a parent I feel I have a right to know what's going on with my child at school.''
“If we could stop it right now, it would be great,'' said Rep. Doris Goodale, R-Kingman. “These rooms should be used for what they were built for: storage, not kids.''
“I don't think these rooms should be used,'' said Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley.
And Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, said while there may be schools using the rooms properly, that's not what he heard from those who testified on the measure.
He said they described a “‘Cool Hand Luke' education system where you're thrown in a box if you're not compliant,'' referring to the 1967 Paul Newman movie about a man who would not conform to life in a rural prison.
But Goodale acknowledged the political difficulty in making such a radical change in state policy on the fly.
So she, along with Townsend, settled for parental notification as an interim step, with the idea that further study might eventually lead to legislation to ban or strictly limit their use — though not until next year.
The legislation got the support of Staci Burk, president of the board of the Gilbert Unified School District. Her perspective, though, was not that the rooms are a bad idea. She said it would instead “help identify parents that may oppose the use of the seclusion room and therefore help with legally protecting the district.''
But Rep. Catherine Miranda, D-Phoenix, a former school assistant principal, said that's missing the point.
“Just because you get permission from the parent doesn't mean that it's good for schoolchildren,'' she said.
“A lot of the parents are pretty fed up with their own child and basically don't care,'' Miranda said. “So we've given them now basically permission to put a disruptive student in an isolated room which is, I believe, not good for our students.''
In fact, Miranda did not support the bill in committee, urging that lawmakers instead take the time to craft a more far-reaching measure outlawing the use of the rooms.
But Townsend said she fears trying to do that. “Then nothing happens and more students are placed in these rooms without parental knowledge.”