An ongoing series that explores how Oklahoma’s severe human-needs issues affect the lives of children.

Two state lawmakers have vowed to pursue legislation to restrict schools’ use of seclusion rooms, which were the topic of a recent Oklahoma Watch investigation.

“It’s not a positive situation,” Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, said of seclusion rooms. “You’re not accomplishing anything if the student doesn’t know why they’re being secluded.”

Seclusion rooms are often small, closet-like rooms with bare walls used to control the behavior of students acting violently, most of whom have autism or severe behavioral disorders. Cottonwood, Ardmore, and Edmond school districts have faced lawsuits over the rooms; Mustang Public Schools faced public backlash recently after an upset parent posted his complaint online.

In one instance, parents allege their son was isolated in a small, narrow room multiple times for disobeying the teacher when he was in the school’s pre-K program for 3 year olds. In other cases, parents say their special-needs child was shut into the room time after time, and they were unaware.

Oklahoma is one of 13 states without a law addressing the use of seclusion rooms with special education students, though two lawmakers are working to change that.

Cleveland’s bill to ban schools’ use of corporal punishment on certain special education students was signed by Gov. Mary Fallin in May. Cleveland, prompted by the Oklahoma Watch story, said he plans to draft legislation in 2018 that would similarly ban the use of seclusion rooms.

“I’ve got to do what I think is right,” he said.

Rep. Josh Cockroft, R-Wanette, filed bills in 2016 and 2017 to restrict schools’ use of seclusion and restraint of special education students, but the bills failed. On Wednesday, Cockroft tweeted a link to our story and vowed to file another bill to address the issue.

“This is inexcusable and embarrassing for families across our state,” he tweeted.

Cockroft was unavailable for comment Monday because he’s chairing an investigative committee looking into the state Health Department’s cash crisis.

His 2017 bill would have prohibited schools’ use of restraint or seclusion of students with disabilities for discipline, to force compliance or as a convenience for staff, and it would have required staff to first attempt to de-escalate students’ violent behavior through other less- restrictive methods. It also would have required schools to report each incident of restraint and seclusion to the Education Department and notify the student’s parents within 24 hours.


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Jennifer Palmer

Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 325-2084 or jpalmer@oklahomawatch.org. Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC