After Kirsty Johnston revealed two weeks ago that Miramar Central School had repeatedly locked children – including an 11 year-old boy with autism – in dark, cupboard-sized room as a punishment, the story developed quickly.
It emerged that many other schools were using the practice basically unmonitored and Education minister Hekia Parata appeared bizarrely disconnected from the situation at one school, where staff were refusing to cooperate with a police investigation into their use of restraint and seclusion. It's an appalling situation.
But I started to wonder about the basis on which these rooms had been installed in the first place. Before we were obliged to withdraw our younger son from intermediate school some years ago, we had been promised that there would be a quiet room for him to withdraw to and escape the human noise he sometimes found unbearable. It never happened.
But might at least some of these rooms have been installed for good reasons – and was there a danger of a knee-jerk reaction that might harm other familes for whom they were of benefit? Yes and yes, as it turns out.
The Ministry of Education has now cracked down on all schools using such rooms:
The ministry is now focusing on cracking down on other schools that have used seclusion rooms in the last 12 months.
The message is that all schools must stop using such rooms immediately and that Ministry of Education staff will be offering help to come up with techniques to manage students with extreme behaviour.
Meanwhile, this message from the mother of an autistic boy found its way to me:
My son's school has something which could be called a 'seclusion' room but is really a 'sensory deprivation room', a darkened room with a mattress and a hammock.
When he was younger and more volatile, I know my son was offered the room and chose to use it. He would rock in the hammock and have some calming downtime in there, soothed by the the motion and the feeling of safety, a break from his overwhelming senses.
I have also seen teacher aides use the room for students who are screaming and physically lashing out, to protect both the flailing student and themselves from harm. The students usually calm quickly in there.
I am fine with our school's sensory deprivation room, I think it has helped both students and teacher aides deal with sensory overwhelm. The room has a window and students are allowed out when they want to come out.
I know the seclusion rooms in other schools are not necessarily the same and have not been used so well. The point I am making is that SOME 'seclusion rooms' are designed to deal with autism's sensory processing issues and so it is not a black and white issue: aka 'all seclusion rooms are bad and staff who use them are bad people'. The teacher aides at M's school are the most caring, strong and wonderful people and I totally sanction the use of the sensory deprivation room that I have seen at our school.
Even the phrase "sensory deprivation room" sounds a bit grim: it's not as if there is no sensory stimulation, just a lot less of it. Even the darkness is relevant – some autistic people find fluourescent lighting aggravating.
The checklist is actually fairly simple. Is the use of the room discussed with parents and part of an agreed plan? Does the child find relief? Is the door unlocked? Are staff on hand?
The belated attention to unacceptable practices is, of course welcome. But having failed to monitor schools' use of what can be a helpful facility – and thus allowed the rooms to be used as a routine form of punishment, to the point where the police have had to get involved, the ministry and its minister are in danger of erring in the the other direction.
Their pressing need to get themselves off the hook risks compounding the negligence that got us to this point.