Pine Tree defends cool-down room
By Sarah Thomas firstname.lastname@example.org
Sept. 29, 2012 at 10 p.m.
Pine Tree ISD calls it a cool-down room.
But to a parent who witnessed two teachers barricading the doors to a room where a screaming child was being confined earlier this month, it appeared to be something else entirely - something she said may be illegal.
"I was walking to my daughter's classroom, and I heard screaming, and it got closer as I was walking," Abigail Alldredge said. "Then I saw two teachers holding a door shut, and I could hear a child screaming to be let out."
The question is whether the child was being held in a seclusion room - the schoolhouse equivalent to solitary confinement - a method that was outlawed by the Texas Legislature in 2009. And the debate is an illustration of the difficulty teachers, students and parents sometimes face in navigating what is and is not acceptable behind schoolhouse doors.
Pine Tree ISD officials do not dispute the Sept. 14 incident happened, but said Alldredge misinterpreted what she saw at Pine Tree Middle School, that the teachers' actions were allowable within the parameters of the law.
School officials are always looking for effective ways to manage student behavior, and at Pine Tree ISD one of those techniques is placement in what officials call a "cool-down" room.
Alldredge insists that regardless what the district calls it, she witnessed a child's confinement in a seclusion room.
"They called it a 'cool-down room.' It's just baffling. It's such an ancient practice," Alldredge said. "It is supposed to be used in worst-case scenarios when you have to wait for the proper authorities to take over the situation."
Pine Tree ISD spokeswoman Vicki Echols said the cool-down room is meant to provide comfort and dignity to the student.
"No one wants to have their process of de-escalation out in public. This gives them a private place to calm down," Echols said.
The Texas Education Code states, "A school district employee or volunteer or an independent contractor of a district may not place a student in seclusion."
The law makes exceptions, including permitting the "unattended confinement in an emergency situation while awaiting the arrival of law enforcement."
Some "emergency situations" include a student with a weapon, any student who poses a threat of bodily injury to another student, faculty and staff and confinement when it is done by a peace officer during the course of law enforcement duties.
"By barricading that door shut and holding black paper over the window, that's where they broke the law," Alldredge said.
When she came upon the scene, Alldredge said, she asked the teachers holding the doors shut if the child inside was special needs. One of the teachers said "no."
A student standing nearby said the child who was screaming to be let out was a kindergarten student brought to the middle school cool-down room from another campus, Alldredge said.
She said her concern at the time was not just for the student barricaded in the room.
"The room is in the front of the school where other students have to walk by. I can just imagine what they are thinking and how this can traumatize them," she said. "There is so much research that there is no positive that comes from these situations."
Before she left the campus that day, Alldredge spoke to the principal and superintendent about her concerns.
Texas law spells out what schools can do regarding confinement, restraint, seclusion and time out for students.
The state defines time out the same way Pine Tree ISD defines cool down: "A behavior management technique in which to provide a student with an opportunity to regain self control, the student is separated from other students for a limited period in a setting that is not locked and from which the exit is not physically blocked by furniture, a closed door held shut from the outside or another inanimate object."
Pine Tree officials said the district uses time out in accordance with state law and district policies, which state time out is not a disciplinary technique.
Pine Tree Superintendent T.J. Farler wrote in an email that seclusion is prohibited by district board policies, but time outs can be used to "provide a student with an opportunity to regain self-control" by separating the student from other students in a setting that "is not locked and from which the exit is not physically blocked by furniture, a closed door held shut from the outside or another inanimate object."
"There is never a child alone in that cool-down room," Echols said. "And the reason someone is at the door is to prevent them from charging out of the room because kids sometimes want to just get away. Having someone at the door prevents injury."
Alldredge said she understands there are situations where students need a time out.
"I understand if the child is a danger to himself or others," Alldredge said. "I know a lot of people just say, 'Oh, it's a timeout,' but if you heard the pleading from this little boy - it was just absolutely heartbreaking."
Echols said that while Alldredge did the right thing addressing the principal and superintendent, her interpretation of what happened is not entirely accurate.
"If a parent has any concerns, we want to know about it," Echols said.
District officials are not denying the student was removed from his classroom, but they're disputing Alldredge's claim it was an act of punishment and a violation of state law.
"This is a behavior management technique that is used based on each student's particular needs and the specific circumstance," Echols said.
Alldredge said another one of her concerns is that no training has been provided for these teachers.
"These teachers are not certified to do this type of thing," Alldrege said.
But, Echols said staff members do receive crisis training.
"Crisis Prevention Training is provided on a regular basis to campus staff, including classroom teachers, counselors and behavior support assistants," Echols said. "Every campus in Pine Tree ISD has received training that is updated annually."
Echols said the training focuses on crisis prevention and de-escalation strategies for students in special and regular education programs.
"We learn skills about how to bring down the energy," Echols said. "I've got to keep them from hurting themselves. I mean, we're talking about a student who may even grab another student and hurt them."
Alldredge said she was also upset the school principal failed to return her follow-up phone calls.
But Echols said the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protects students and their parents. She said the district is bound by law not to discuss a student with anyone other than that student's parents or guardians.
"The principal and the superintendent did respond to the parent in an effort to understand her concerns," Echols said.
She also said that once the principal and the superintendent spoke with Alldredge, an investigation was conducted.
"What we found was that we were in compliance except in one area," Echols said. "The newest employee needed to be reminded of her training and where she is supposed to stand during that process."
Echols said Pine Tree works to provide a safe learning environment for its students.
"Schools are responsible for keeping students safe. If any child is in need of support or guidance on how to cope and respond to their environment, we are going to provide that," Echols said.
"The goal for this child was to comfort him and move him back to his educational environment. The techniques meet the criteria of CPI training."