Seclusion room use highlights challenging situation in schools
A Palmerston North high school has used a controversial seclusion room for one special needs pupil, but says it only turns to such drastic measures in extreme cases.
Awatapu College was one of three schools in Manawatu and Horowhenua to use the rooms this year.
The others, West End School and Levin East School, were among 17 nationwide to have used the practice in 2016.
Their names were revealed in a Ministry of Education report commissioned after a public outcry following complaints a Wellington school locked autistic pupils in a darkened room.
Minister of Education Hekia Parata said she was "horrified" at the practice and has now written to all schools to say it should cease immediately.
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Awatapu College principal Gary Yeatman said the school had used a seclusion room for one special needs pupil "rarely".
"These measures are only used in the most extreme of cases, and only as a last resort ... the health and safety of staff and students have been paramount.
"We believe that other alternatives had been exhausted and the student went to that room while we waited for outside help – from police."
He understood the parents of the pupil were aware their child was placed in the locked room.
Awatapu board of trustees chairman Jeremy Neild said some parents of children in the special needs unit had contacted the school to say they were fine with their child being placed in the seclusion room if their behaviour was extreme.
With seclusion rooms ruled out, the school could be forced to consider expulsion of the pupil if other interventions to curb extreme behaviour failed.
If the pupil were expelled, other schools would not be obliged to enrol them, Yeatman said, but it was the school's preference to keep the pupil in school.
No disciplinary action had been started. "Our No 1 priority is about keeping kids at school, because the reality is that the longer those students stay at school, research has shown the outcomes are better."
The school would follow the ministry's advice that seclusion rooms were no longer to be used, he said.
Audrey Larson, principal at West End School, said staff had used a seclusion room, but had always acted "in the best interest of all children".
After discussion with ministry staff the school had stopped the practice and would continue to address challenging behaviour alongside families, she said.
IHC director of advocacy Trish Grant said seclusion rooms were not acceptable, but schools were not being well supported to deal with challenging behaviour.
"The value of this story is that it has brought this out in the open and I think people are quite shocked. Since the story broke we've been contacted by other families saying they are being used on a regular basis and they are more common than we think.
"It's really important the big question is asked: Why are schools using these types of practices? It does throw up a big question about how schools are supported to manage special needs."
Teachers needed training to cope with highly challenging behaviour in special needs pupils and school boards needed a good understanding of the demands on teachers.
"This is impacting on all children. When they don't have the resources to respond there should be specialised support from the Ministry of Education to help.
"There are definitely techniques that can be used [as an alternative]. The best techniques can be those that the family and schools work out together that can be used at home and in school situations."
Parata has requested a select committee considers a change to the Education (Update) Amendment Bill to legally ban seclusion rooms.
The 17 schools using seclusion rooms were from 2529 surveyed and Parata said she understood no schools were still using them.
Nobody at Levin East School returned calls.