Eye On Illinois: Even well-intended reform can’t be cure-all for classroom trauma

HB 219 has good potential to prevent future abuse of isolation rooms

I’ll never forget learning about neoprene vests.

I was brand new to special education, accommodations, interventions, strategies and a million other buzzwords. But the neoprene vest stuck out. It’s simple: the weighted vest has a calming effect, useful for restoring focus or countering sensory overload. It’s more natural than a protective layer worn for a dental X-ray, and eminently useful in a preschool setting where talented teachers must all manner of individual challenges.

That concept didn’t register because it wasn’t abstract, it was about my 3-year-old and making him wear something weird since he couldn’t chill out otherwise. The 350 words I have left aren’t enough to cover my ensuing years as a special education parent. Probably 35,000 wouldn’t suffice.

Also, it’s not my story to tell — not alone. My kid didn’t request traits that earned an individualized education plan before he could write his name; neither did he demand a newspaper columnist father. But they’re our identities, and so we were gripped reading the 2019 Chicago Tribune/ProPublica investigative report on the use of isolation rooms in Illinois schools.

Journalists found thousands of documented incidents and relayed chilling accounts of kids subjected to those conditions: “crying, screaming, begging to be released, ramming their heads into padded walls and prying at doors,” according to an Associated Press summary.

The investigation was central to a Wednesday hearing regarding House Bill 219, which would ban isolation rooms and the use of “prone restraint,” which Capitol News Illinois reported involves holding a student face-down and applying pressure, along with mechanical and chemical restraint.

Some stories are truly harrowing. Also true is that sometimes the best thing you can do for a student is leave them alone. Some kids, under enough stress, can’t settle their brain in the presence of an adult. Even when the adult is trained, caring, loving or silent, the only solution is solitude.

Isolation isn’t right for most kids, nor is it always suitable for those who sometimes benefit. Seclusion can be horribly misused, even by ostensibly trained, well-intentioned educators. Some interventions and accommodations are miraculous for one child while torturous for another — or great on Monday and garbage on Tuesday for the same kid — and strategies that sound better than padded isolation rooms are equally capable of devastation.

A lot of what happens at school can traumatize children. Special education parents regularly trade stories because it helps to read the eyes of another adult who loves an exceptional child and has sat by the phone all day waiting for the inevitable difficult conversation.

But trauma isn’t unique to special students. Even the best schools and teachers have blind spots. Although HB 219 holds promise, no law can spare every student.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Local News Network. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.