The Longview School District is reviewing use of a isolation booth at Mint Valley Elementary School to make sure staff is following state rules, but an adoptive parent of a special-needs daughter said the booth helped transform her from a violent child to a “happy little girl.”
District spokeswoman Sandy Catt said the booth is used with parental consent to de-escalate aggressive behaviors for special ed students. Washington state code allows schools to isolate a student as a form of “aversive intervention” within strict guidelines.
Niki Favela of Longview said before her daughter Star, 11, used the booth, she was notorious as one of the worst children in the district.
“She was expelled from two schools before second grade,” Favela said in a phone interview Wednesday.
When Star, who is autistic, came to the family as a foster child 2 1/2 years ago, “she would physically attack us nine or 10 times a day,” Favela said. “She would throw chairs, books, hit, kick, head-butt. The adrenaline in her little body was overwhelming. ... She didn’t have control. She didn’t know how to calm herself down.”
Star learned how to self-regulate her emotions and her body in isolation, Favela said.
Star used the booth “as a way to keep her and other students safe until she could calm down,” Favela said. “Today, Star is a much different child. She’s in a regular fourth-grade class and has the ability to use the isolation booth of her own free will. Sometimes she just needs a break from the outside world to collect her thoughts. Sometimes the noise is overwhelming and she just needs quiet.”
On Tuesday, photos of “the box” posted on Facebook by Longview mother Ana Bate went viral, sparking a storm of criticism primarily based on the assumption that the booth is used as punishment for misbehavior. Favela and school officials said it’s never used for punishment, and most of the children use it willingly.
“To the outside world it seems extreme,” but without the program “our daughter would not have same opportunities as everyone else,” Favela said.
A Longview parent of two special-needs children said Wednesday that her older child, 10, used the booth once in the last school year and has not needed it this year. The boy has numerous disorders that make it difficult for him to control his emotions and his body, making him a danger to himself and others, said the woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Jessica. Her younger child, 7, is autistic but has not needed to be in the booth yet, she said.
“Before I had signed the written agreement for (her older son) to be able to be in there, he was very out of control and he had to be held in the office,” she said. When she arrived, he had been banging his head on the wall, wrapping himself in cords and throwing shoes at the teachers who did not have the legal paperwork to restrain him, she said.
“All they could do was ask him to stop and put their hands between his head and the wall,” she said.
She said the people need to educate themselves on the issue before criticizing the use of isolation.
“It’s not for every child,” Jessica said. “It’s for children who need it to keep themselves safe, the staff safe and every child in that room safe. When I had to restrain my own son at home, he head-butted my ribs so hard they were bruised. I couldn’t take a breath without hurting for six months.”
Tearfully, she added, “I would have loved to have an isolation room in my house, just so he wouldn’t have to look back at Mommy six months later and say, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do that, I didn’t mean to hurt you.’ They don’t have control of themselves at those moments.”
Catt, the school district spokeswoman, said that before Tuesday, the district had never received a complaint about the booth, the only one in the district. It formerly was kept at Columbia Heights Elementary before being moved to Mint Valley four years ago.
Catt said that Jill Diehl, the Longview district’s director of special education, estimated that eight or nine students use the booth in varying frequencies. The district is reviewing its isolation policy and the booth to see if changes are necessary, Catt said.
The door has peep holes, which might be inadequate to meet codes, which mandate that the enclosure “must permit visual monitoring,” Catt said.
Another area of concern is an unverified report received Wednesday that a child in the general student population might have been placed in the booth, a clear violation of the code, Catt said.
“We’re trying to get information about that right now,” she said late Wednesday. “We’re taking it very seriously.”