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New report raises concerns over the use of isolation rooms in schools for children with disabilities

New report highlights physical restraint of children with disabilities in schools.

Seclusion room, with handle removed from door.
Seclusion room, with handle removed from door.
Image: Courtesy of Inclusion Ireland

A NEW REPORT has highlighted how schools are using physical restraints and isolation methods when teaching children with disabilities. 

Inclusion Ireland, the national association for people with an intellectual disability, interviewed families of 14 pupils for the study. All 14 have raised concerns about how their children are being treated by school staff. 

The disability advocacy body found that these pupils were physically restrained, locked in rooms and removed from their classmates.

On the back of the report’s launch, the group has called for mandatory reporting to be put in place for these types of incident. 

Any incident involving the physical restraint of a child, where a staff member might grip or hold a child tightly, should be reported to the school principal and Department of Education as a matter of protocol, it says. 

The same process should be in place when an isolation room is used, according to Inclusion Ireland. Isolation or seclusion rooms are used to keep a child in small spaces, away from their peers.

image2 Seclusion room Source: Courtesy of Inclusion Ireland

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, the Department of Education said it is currently working on new guidelines to address dealing with crisis situations with pupils with behavioural difficulties.

However, it said a child should not be restrained by anyone without specific training in how to do this safely.

Pending the development of specific guidelines on restraint of pupils in educational settings, previous guidance to schools advised schools that specialised behaviour management strategies, such as the use of restraint, should not be used without expert advice, training and monitoring.

A spokesperson also said it is not appropriate to leave a student “in an unsupervised situation while in the care of the school”.

In particular the guidelines point to certain sanctions which are regarded as inappropriate, including leaving a student in an unsupervised situation while in the care of the school.

The Inclusion Ireland report has highlighted cases where children were left in isolation rooms alone for prolonged periods. 

In one such case, a young boy was locked in a small room for up to five hours, before becoming so distressed that he attempted to break a window in order to escape. At the time, he was expelled for damaging school property.

However, Mark O’Connor from Inclusion Ireland said following intervention by the group, the department and his family, the boy is now back in school and thriving after getting the supports he needed.

This turned into a good news story, in that it shows the supports work when they are available.

In another case, a child reported being physically held down by his head by a school transport escort for a 20-minute journey. The youngster reported the gravity of the situation to his parents:

He found it very difficult to breathe and (said) that it was a painful experience.

His parents say when they learned of the issues at school and raised their concerns with the child and family agency Tusla, their son was suspended immediately from school. 

Inclusion Ireland is calling for a number of measures to be put in place in the wake of this report, highlighting the need for training of school staff. 

  • The Department of Education take steps to ensure that seclusion and restraint become a matter of last resort. 
  • Measures are taken to include guidelines and monitoring to tightly prescribe the use of seclusion and restraint.
  • Training to monitor, support and supervise staff using these practices.
  • Ensure incidents of seclusion and restraint are recorded and reported formally to the Department. 

O’Connor has warned that these 14 cases are just the “tip of the iceberg”: 

I would love if these were the only 14 cases in Ireland but I don’t think they are.

The Department of Education has emphasised that while supports for schools and staff are available, “the Board of Management of each school is responsible for the care and safety of all of the pupils in their school”.

TheJournal.ie has asked Tusla for comment but none has been given at time of publication. 

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About the author:

Aisling O'Rourke

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