A Colorado lawmaker wants to ban the use of seclusion rooms in schools statewide in the wake of allegations that a well-regarded Denver middle school maintained a room that locked from the outside where children having behavioral issues were left alone.
“Our students are here to receive a high-quality education, and they deserve not to be incarcerated,” said state Rep. Regina English, a Colorado Springs Democrat who also serves on the Harrison School District 2 board. “So these seclusion rooms, that’s going to be a no-go across the state of Colorado.”
Meanwhile, a district investigation continues into the use of a seclusion room at McAuliffe International School, the same school where longtime principal Kurt Dennis was fired earlier this summer after speaking with 9 News about safety concerns. Interim Principal Micah Klaver also has been placed on paid administrative leave, district officials confirmed.
State law allows educators to shut students inside of rooms, a practice known as seclusion, in certain extreme situations, but Denver district policy bans these rooms. Many Denver schools have what the district calls de-escalation rooms. District policy requires that an adult remain in the room with a student and that the door remain unlocked.
Denver Superintendent Alex Marrero said the district would retrain all staff at McAuliffe International School on district policy and appropriate de-escalation techniques before students return to classrooms later this month.
Dennis was fired after he spoke publicly about being required to keep a student accused of attempted murder in class instead of moving him to online classes or an alternative school. Many parents have rallied to Dennis’ cause and demanded that he be reinstated, and some Denver educators said his firing is having a chilling effect on other school leaders and teachers.
District officials said Dennis was fired not because he criticized the district publicly but because he shared personal information about a student. His termination letter also noted a number of accusations that he treated students with disabilities unfairly.
Last week, Denver school board members Auon’tai Anderson and Scott Esserman said an anonymous whistleblower who works at the school told them about the seclusion room, known among staff as an “incarceration room,” and shared pictures of walls with holes punched in them and an exterior lock on the door. They said staff described children being dragged kicking and screaming into the room and being left there alone for long periods of time.
Anderson said the district is aware of three students locked in the room, all of them Black. Fighting back emotion, school board member Michelle Quattlebaum said students should never be placed in conditions that “mimic incarceration.”
David Lane, Dennis’ attorney, told the Denver Post last week that Dennis did place a lock on the door in an effort to keep both students and staff safe and that he removed the lock when district officials told him to. Lane said Dennis never received any guidance about use of the seclusion room.
Anderson said Monday he does not know the identity of the whistleblower and that person is not cooperating with investigators because they fear retaliation if their identity is discovered. However, other McAuliffe staff are cooperating, he said, and the investigation is moving forward.
The Denver principals union has filed a grievance on behalf of multiple school leaders related to how the district is handling the investigation, with elected officials bringing forward the complaint and holding press conferences before the investigation is concluded.
“We are concerned that the current public discourse is not only having a deleterious impact on the school communities but possible severe reputational harm for multiple leaders,” reads the grievance letter from the Denver School Leaders Association, which also notes that district policies call for confidentiality around personnel matters and for employees accused of wrong-doing to have access to a fair process.
Colorado law allows children to be placed in seclusion rooms if they’re a danger to themselves or others.
Advocates have long criticized the practice as profoundly traumatic for children and counterproductive to teaching children better coping skills. The children who are placed in these rooms often have been through traumatic events or have disabilities that affect how they regulate emotions. Advocates argue that with better training and different attitudes, classroom teachers and aides can head off challenging behavior before it turns into a crisis.
Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, which supports students with disabilities and their families, said she has filed many complaints over the years regarding McAuliffe, and the district has promised to train staff before, yet she has seen little change in the culture. She has asked the Colorado Department of Education to do its own investigation into the seclusion room at McAuliffe.
Bisceglia said she has seen rooms in other Denver schools with soft lighting, bean bag chairs, and pillows where students can calm down. But on a tour of a district-run facility school in a suburban district, she saw a child locked in a room, crying, while an adult watched, silent, through a small window.
“When they showed us the room, you could tell how tall the tallest student was because the paint was scratched from that point down,” she said.
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A new law passed last year requires that seclusion rooms have a window or other way for an adult to keep eyes on the child and that the room be a dedicated space free from hazards. Schools can no longer lock children in broom closets or offices.
A 2020 Chalkbeat investigation found a wide range of practices among Colorado districts and limited state oversight. Districts were essentially policing themselves, and parents were sometimes kept in the dark about what happened to their children. Since then, lawmakers have added new reporting requirements alongside the seclusion room regulations. And the Colorado Department of Education gained new enforcement authority for when its investigators find violations.
School districts argued against these regulations, saying they didn’t want to overburden special education staff with even more paperwork and that seclusion rooms were used as a last resort but an important one to keep all children safe.
English, who is Black, said she was “appalled and disgusted” to learn of the allegations, especially because the children involved “look like me.” In districts around the state, Black children are also more likely to be suspended, expelled, ticketed, and arrested when compared with their white peers.
“They are not caged animals, and I will not allow them to be treated as such,” English said.
Bisceglia said she supports a statewide ban because students should have the same protections around the state and because it would represent a clear statement of values.
Bret Miles, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, said he wants to work closely with lawmakers to explain the “incredible burden” that principals have to keep all students safe, as well as the different circumstances and resources districts experience.
English said she was willing to work with school districts to make sure legislation allows for dedicated rooms where students can calm down or not hurt themselves or others. But she would not “backpedal” on banning seclusion rooms. She noted that Colorado banned corporal punishment this year.
“When these things take place,” she said, “there needs to be an adult in that room with them, not just locking a child up and saying, ‘Figure it out, cry yourself to sleep.’ That’s a no-go.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization covering public education.