Seclusion room ban lifted

A photo of a seclusion room in use in an unnamed Alberta school. Photo courtesy of Inclusion Alberta

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Alberta’s education minister has scrapped a ban on the use of school seclusion rooms just days before new rules were to take effect.

Schools will now have to submit monthly reports to the education ministry recording each school’s use of seclusion rooms, according to a new ministerial order, signed August 28, Wednesday by Education Minister Adriana LaGrange. They must report how many rooms are in each school, how many times they were used and by how many students.

The minister also approved interim, mandatory standards for school use of isolation rooms and “time out” procedures, replacing non-binding provincial guidelines penned in 2008. La Grange said in a Thursday news release new, permanent standards for the rooms’ use will be in place by the end of October. Inclusion Alberta, the Alberta Teachers’ Association, public and Catholic school boards in Edmonton and Calgary and other provincial education groups will give input for the final standards, the release said.

The changes are a chance to revisit blanket exclusions some school divisions had applied for to circumvent the ban, said Trish Bowman, CEO of Inclusion Alberta, which advocates for people with disabilities.

Bowman believes the province should still ban the use of seclusion and physical restraint in schools.

“We still don’t think that there’s ever a reason for a child to be locked alone in a room,” she said Thursday.

LaGrange said almost everyone she spoke with about the seclusion room ban said it limited the school’s ability to protect everyone’s safety.

“After careful consideration and a lot of listening to those directly affected, I have decided to move forward together with our partners in a more measured way, which is the right thing to do for the right reason,” her statement said.

Families anxious about rooms’ uses

Seclusion rooms, which go by other names, like isolation rooms, are sparse spaces where school staff can place students having violent behavioural outbursts. A person cannot get out voluntarily.

Although the rooms are supposed to be used sparingly, as a last resort, Bowman has said the rooms are subject to misuse.

In 2017, Sherwood Park parents, Marcy Oakes and Warren Henschel, filed a lawsuit against the Elk Island Public School division, the provincial government and others, alleging their then-12-year old son, who is on the autism spectrum, was locked, naked, in an isolation room at Clover Bar Junior High for 45 minutes and ended up covered in his own feces. The school district denies any wrongdoing, and the allegations have not been proved in court.

Families of children with autism feel anxious about the ban’s end, said Autism Edmonton executive director, Brooke Pinsky, on Thursday. She was happy schools will now have to report how the rooms are used, as reliable data on their use is lacking.

Schools need clear rules about what qualifies as appropriate or inappropriate use of the rooms, she said. School staff should not be able to use the rooms without parents’ or guardians’ prior consent, she said.

“We know that seclusion can cause devastating lifelong emotional challenges and developmental challenges,” Pinsky said. “We’ve heard terrible accounts from families on the impact that the use of seclusion and restraint has had for their children.”

Bowman said some parents are coerced into giving permission for seclusion when staff say their children will be sent home instead, or they will call 911.

In late August, Alberta’s four largest school boards asked the minister to rescind the ban.

On Thursday, Edmonton public school board chairwoman Trisha Estabrooks said she was pleased the minister listened to their concerns and provided more clarity.

“Having this room comes with great responsibility,” she said. “Using these rooms is not something that is done on a whim or is taken lightly.”

Some districts do without rooms

In 2018, former NDP education minister David Eggen struck an advisory panel to review the existing guidelines. In March 2019, he announced a complete ban on their use would take effect Sept. 1. At the time, Eggen said stories he’d heard from parents led him to believe the rooms were inappropriate and had to go.

On Wednesday, NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said the ban was the right decision.

School divisions were allowed to apply for exemptions to the ban. The government has not answered a question about how many divisions applied for exemptions.

“Due to the applications received, any exemptions from the minister would result in the majority of seclusion rooms being exempted from the ban,” LaGrange’s press secretary, Colin Aitchison, said in a Wednesday email.

However, several school divisions said this week they never applied for an exemption because they don’t use seclusion rooms in their schools. Among those saying they have no seclusion rooms are Edmonton Catholic Schools, public school divisions in Fort McMurray, Peace River and Grande Prairie and Grande Prairie Catholic Schools. Calgary Catholic has the rooms at 11 schools that host specialized programs. Edmonton public did not have a room count available Thursday.

Estabrooks said she trusts Edmonton public school staff when they say they need access to the rooms.

The new interim standards say school employees should only use seclusion and restraint if their attempts to reinforce positive behaviour are ineffective and there is immediate danger to the student or others. Seclusion must stop as soon as the student no longer poses a risk, the standards say. Only trained employees should attempt seclusion or restraint. The incident should be considered an “emergency” that is documented and reported to parents or guardians immediately, the standards say.

With files from Moira Wyton

jfrench@postmedia.com

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