I have, in times past, made many metaphorical references to schools being like prisons. There are, if you think about it, a lot of similarities — especially since Columbine: weapons checks, locker searches, closed campuses, strict visitor control, etc. EducationWeek’s Law Blog is covering one of these similarities:
A school’s placement of an autistic child in a locked isolation room for misbehavior was “a recognized educational tool” and was part of the child’s special education plan, thus a parent who challenged the tactic first had to exhaust administrative remedies before suing, a federal appeals court has ruled.
The case wasn’t really about the merits of the school’s action. At issue was the question over whether the family of the child had exhausted administrative remedies. What this means in lay English is that the family is required to go through a series of administrative steps — appeal to principal, appeal to the school board, etc. — before going to court. I believe (but am not 100% certain) that the point of exhaustion requirements is to keep the case load of the courts down to a reasonable level; if someone can get what they want by complaining to the principal, then, the thinking goes, why not just have them write a letter and not clog up the docket.
One of the judges dissented, apparently claiming that the violations were severe enough to warrant circumventing the normal administrative steps:
U.S. Circuit Judge John T. Noonan noted in his dissent that a Washington state teacher repeatedly locked a 7-year-old child identified as D.P. “into an unventilated, dark space the size of a closet for indeterminate amounts of time, causing D.P. to become so fearful that he routinely urinated and defecated on himself.”
Now, to be fair to the school district, because of the procedural posture of the case, the court is required to take the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff (the defendant was moving for summary judgment on exhaustion grounds) so it’s not been decided what did and did not occur. But I think he might have a point — here’s the key line from his dissent (the opinion and dissent are available here):
Viewing the facts as we must, in the light most favorable to the Paynes, it is clear that Ms. Coy’s misuse of the isolation room serves no legitimate educational purpose, is prohibited by state administrative regulations, and was imposed as punishment.
Which brings me back to my first thought — this sounds an awful lot like prison, only now instead of a metaphor — we’re apparently now actually locking children up. Maybe it’s for their own good, and maybe it’s punishment — I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s creepy. I’m all for locking crazy people up in asylums — I think that it’s generally a mercy as compared to letting them roam the streets. But locking up students? That’s not what schools are for. This tactic is apparently limited to certain special education situations — but I’m not sure that makes it any better. It might make it worse.