New Law Targets Padded Rooms for Autistic Kids

Arizona restricts school use of seclusion rooms to discipline disabled children.

ByABC News
April 8, 2013, 5:51 PM

April 8, 2013 — -- Arizona Gov. Janice Brewer has signed a law providing strong new restrictions on the use of so-called "seclusion rooms" in schools – closet-sized rooms where children with behavioral disabilities such as autism were being locked up as punishment.

"It is chilling to imagine an Arizona school child being shut away in a padded room, no larger than a closet, for hours on end," Brewer said after signing the law Friday. "There has to be a better way."

With the new law, Arizona will join more than 30 other states that impose rules on the restraint of students in public schools.

The use of tiny, windowless seclusion or isolation rooms in American classrooms was one focus of an ABC News investigation that aired on "Nightline" and "World News With Diane Sawyer" in November. The report found that seclusion was one of a range of harsh techniques being used in some American schools to restrain unruly students suffering from autism or other disabilities.

In addition to the controversial use of seclusion rooms, school officials around the country have been employing a wide array of methods to restrain behaviorally disabled children that range from sitting on them, to handcuffing them, even jolting them with an electric shock at one specialized school. Thousands of autistic and disabled schoolchildren have been injured and dozens more have died after being physically restrained by poorly trained teachers and school aides, ABC News found.

ABC News Investigation: Death at School

The new Arizona law prohibits schools from using confinement on children unless their parents specifically consent to that form of discipline. Brewer called the measure "a starting point" in helping insure children are not harmed in school.

"Our goal must be to insure Arizona children – especially those with special needs – are treated in a way that provides for both their safety and dignity," she said.

The sponsor of the legislation, Ariz. state Rep. Kelly Townsend, said she considers the measure effectively a ban on the use of the isolation rooms.

"The parent now can decide if this kind of discipline is okay for their child and it gives them the option to opt out," Townsend said. "I trust the parents are not going to permit this."

A vocal advocate for the new law was Leslie Noyes, the mother of a seven-year-old boy in Phoenix, Arizona who secretly videotaped the padded room in her son's school after he had been left there for the better part of a school day. She says she later learned he had been held in the room 17 times – though the school disputes that number, saying he was there three times.

"I was disgusted," Noyes told ABC News. "There was one time that I know he was placed in the room a little after 10 a.m. He was there until the school day ended at 3:30 p.m. They brought him lunch in there. He ate it on the floor. He had urinated on the floor. They wouldn't let him out to use the bathroom."

Officials from the Deer Valley Unified School District where Noyes' son went to school said that, because of the pending lawsuit, they could not respond to questions about the case. But in general, spokeswoman Heidi Vega said, seclusion is "the last method of behavior management schools use with a student."