Padded Cells for Public Schools

I have been appalled since learning that a padded cell, designed specifically to confine a young child, has been built in a local elementary school. To me, the planning and the building of that cell demonstrate how far ethics and good judgment have disintegrated in public education — at least in America. It was repugnant, also, to learn that some Russian public school administrators have been earning revenue by renting empty classrooms to brothels and strip bars…a policy which does make Medicaid fraud seem almost wholesome…but back to padded cells.

Although many people in the community were angry about the cell, some felt that the School Board members might be unaware of its existence. It seemed only right that the members be told of the dastardly contraption parked in the center of one of the newest classrooms and surrounded by tutoring areas from which other children might witness adults dragging the misbehaving child to lock-up.

I attended the next school board meeting to ask the Board if they were aware of “The Box,” as it was then called. Two members had heard through the grapevine and were already angry; the other five appeared to receive the information with surprise, even shock. I asked if the Board had approved the construction and use of The Box, but an administrator spoke up to say that the Board did not need to approve the building of a lock-up facility (even on public property) because “it was written in the child’s IEP.”

For those unfamiliar with the term, an IEP is, in the language of special education, an Individual Educational Plan. An IEP is written for each specific child by the IEPC — Individual Educational Planning Committee, which includes the parents if they choose to attend. Once a service, or treatment, or educational device is written into the IEP, the document becomes legally binding. In this case, the addition of the words “padded cell” or however the team chose to describe it, had the power to force a district to construct the device; as well as the power to send a young child into a structure that could not be used to confine an adult except by specific court order. I cringe to think that such an IEP meets the legal requirement that special education children be provided with “a free, appropriate education in the least restrictive environment.” The padded cell appeared to be extremely restrictive, even as I viewed it through a window. Later, able to actually enter it, ‘restrictive’ was the exact descriptor that came to mind

Others joined me in questioning the wisdom of using public school time, space, personnel and finances for such ‘treatment.’ We were advised that The Box “was built to state guidelines” and that “many states are doing the same thing.” I have been unable to verify that information, but will continue to search. We were assured that the parents had agreed to its use, but I pointed out that too often parents agree to unhealthy offerings and treatments — just because a school employee makes recommendations or arrangements: medications; DARE programs; intrusive and inappropriate sex education; ‘black hole’ special education placements.

I suggested that the Board tour the new ‘facility’ and they agreed. After the meeting we went to see the classroom that now looks so brutal. One board member angrily complained that The Box had not been part of the recent open house tour so that the public could have seen how tax money is being spent. It seemed that we all felt ill as we considered what had been forced upon that rural school district.

I use the term forced because I do not believe that the local school district wants the Box anymore than the taxpayers want to pay for it.


Intermediate School Districts (ISDs) are educational agencies specifically established to support local school districts by providing educational services for disabled children. ISDs are funded by the local districts and by local property taxes. These agencies once provided classrooms, teachers, aides, and equipment, for children with specific handicapping conditions — deafness, autism, cognitive disorders, physical and health impairments. Now many of these agencies have closed most of the classrooms that formerly served such students. Of course it is far cheaper — at least for an ISD — to serve handicapped children by forcing local school districts to keep those children in regular classrooms. These placements are forced, even if the presence of the disabled children disrupt the learning of the other students; even if the placements deny disabled children the benefit of teachers trained to work with their specific handicapping conditions.

The magic words — Inclusion and Least Restrictive Environment — have given Intermediate School Districts the opportunity to evade their responsibilities; to avoid educating the very populations for which the agencies even exist. The ISDs still expect the districts and the homeowners to financially support them as they pursue the cheaper and easier roles they have assigned to themselves: providing classes, inservices, speakers, advisors; sending out teams of itinerant professionals who often spend only one day a week in each district; training those individuals to ‘assist’ local schools in writing IEPs that then commit the districts to building boxes and warehousing kids whose needs would be far better served in categorical classrooms at the ISDs, as done in the past. Many ISDs have no desire to fulfill their original purpose. To do so would curtail their new and more enjoyable roles.

I am truly a strong advocate for disabled children, but I do not believe that those children have any right to disrupt the learning, and thus shortchange the lives, of non-disabled children. We would not tolerate a fellow employee who interfered with our ability to do our jobs and caused us to receive reduced wages. Why do we, as a society, allow such disruptions in the learning environments of our children?

Agencies established to serve special populations have an obligation to protect the learning environments of the non-handicapped students. Normal students should not be used as ‘props’ around the disabled students — for atmosphere, experiences or socialization. I grew up in a family with special siblings. I have witnessed many examples of parents wishing that their children were normal. However, forced inclusion is not the answer; placing disabled children inappropriately into regular classrooms does not change the fact that the children have special needs. If those placements obstruct and undermine the educations of other students, then the placements become criminal acts — offenses against the children whose educational opportunities are being compromised; even totally destroyed; as teachers stop instruction to deal with disruption — even when that means dragging children to padded cells.

Instruction time should be just that, and nothing should be allowed to interfere. It is understandable that American schools are often failing to meet standards when students are expected to sacrifice their own needs on the altar of special education, inclusion and bad behavior; when teachers are expected to teach their lesson plans, plus handle special conditions for which they have never been trained; when districts are expected to jump though ISD hoops, attempting to prove that many children truly need placements in ISD classrooms. Districts and parents attempt to hang on until the agencies charged with the responsibility, finally run out of loopholes and are forced to again educate and train truly disabled children.

If those agencies are not willing to provide the services for which they were established, then they should be closed. Superintendents could then form cooperative agreements to meet the needs in their districts. One district could hire a speech clinician; one a school psychologist; one a teacher consultant; then the districts could share the services of those specialists. Small-scale coordination of services would probably save districts more money than they currently spend supporting administration-heavy ISDs with their payrolls filled with non-teaching-employees, and their fancy buildings void of classrooms.

Consider contacting local superintendents to question the (in)effectiveness, and role, of your intermediate school district; to make appointments to physically inspect each building to see if you are paying for padded cells to constrain special ed children who disrupt public school classrooms. Should you find such contraptions, or blatant neglect of duties on the part of the ISDs, alert the public and form groups to fight for the removal of such distasteful interventions and non-services. There are better ways to serve those children. The ISDs are already in place, and are already being paid, to provide the needed classrooms, staff and instruction. If they won’t do it, then it is time to de-fund them and allow local districts the freedom to design new paradigms that better meet the needs of their communities.

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts