DICKINSON, N.D. -- The Dickinson Police Department and Stark County Social Services have begun investigating the use of padded rooms at the elementary schools in Dickinson Public Schools after a parent brought it to the attention of officials at the agencies.

Rachel McCabe, a mother of a child within the district, went to authorities after she found out that the school had been allegedly putting her child into a padded “quiet room” without her consent. She claimed she did not find out that these padded rooms existed until she came into the school to help her child through a particularly bad episode and was directed to the resource room. There she discovered the padded rooms.

The school had been telling her that her son was in their office, she said, which she feels is a misrepresentation of what was actually happening.

The district’s assistant superintendent Vince Reep and the school’s principal declined to comment on the investigation.

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The padded rooms are small spaces with mats on the walls. The rooms do not lock and have a two-way window on the door. Some have a chair or bean bags, while others do not.

Dickinson Public Schools Superintendent Doug Sullivan said that there are time-out rooms in the K-6 buildings across the district, though he did not know how many in total there are. He stressed that the rooms are used as preventative measures and are used as a last resort.

“In many instances they are for students to self-regulate their behavior, and if the student begins to feel like they might be getting out of control, they can voluntarily use the room to calm down,” Sullivan said. “The information I have is that they do provide an effective intervention for students to self-regulate their behavior and for situations of the safety of the people in the building,” he added.

He said he did not know how long the rooms have been in the district but noted that they existed before he assumed office. This is his eighth year as superintendent.

“The procedure is that the room is not utilized without the consent… unless parents give consent and are fully informed,” he said. “And our procedure is that if they are utilized parents are to be notified.”

School administrators, faculty and the parents sit down together and develop a “behavioral intervention plan” for a student who might need to self-regulate their behavior or use the room if they pose a safety risk to themselves or others, Sullivan said. Parents are consulted before a child is allowed to go into the room at all, and then is notified each subsequent time the room is used.

“I think they help to provide a learning environment that provides for the safety of all the people in the building, and I also think that it’s an intervention that helps students learn how to self-regulate their behavior, and it’s important to remember it’s a last resort type of thing in a sequence or series of interventions,” Sullivan said.  

Parents are not alerted that the rooms exist unless faculty and staff determine that the student’s behavior may benefit from the use of such a room, Sullivan said. A child could go through K-12 in Dickinson Public Schools without any behavioral issues and their family may never be aware of the rooms’ existence.

There is not a district-wide policy regarding the use of these rooms, Reep said.

“We don’t have a policy on padded quiet rooms,” Reep said. “Each building has their own procedures that they follow.”

Parents can see rooms

Tammy Praus, principal of Lincoln Elementary School, said that only staff members who received training by the Crisis Prevention Institute were allowed to use the rooms in her school. Many times these staff members will ask the student if they would like to go to the quiet room allowing the student to make the decision on their own. Two of these trained staff members are present at all times.

Students may not use the room at all, even if they are out of control, unless the parent has signed off on a behavior plan – which includes the room’s use – they helped create with the school’s staff, she said. She also encourages parents to see the quiet rooms.

When students use the room she tries to prevent them from shutting the door completely preferring to keep the door even slightly ajar.

In most cases the child stays in the room for about 10 minutes, she said. If a child remains more than 20 minutes the school calls their parents and asks them to come in and talk to their child, even take them out for an hour or so to calm down and then return to school, Praus said.

“It’s a calming environment,” she said. “They just kind of find their own little corner in there, and they just want their quiet time away from their peers or away from the learning environment at times just so that they can do some self-reflection and regulate themselves and get back on track.”

The room can serve as a relaxing space for children to calm down and compose themselves, something a classroom or hallway may not be conducive to, she said. Only a small number of students use the room, she said.

“I think it takes away some of that stimulation,” said Gregg Bertelsen, the crisis intervention  trainer for the district. “Some kids just get overstimulated and being in the hallway it’s hard to control those emotions, and this is a place, they figure out they know they can go there, and they don’t have all that stimulation and it can help them self-regulate and get calmed down so that they can get back to learning.”



Rooms are ‘tools’

Roosevelt Elementary has two padded quiet rooms which are viewed as tools to help the children, said school strategist Jennifer Nokes.

“The room is only for students that have documented parent permission to utilize, and then we have written plans for all of our students that have documented permission to utilize these rooms and on that plan people are either contacted immediately, however we have set it up with them,” Nokes said.

The parents are notified when the room is used unless the student voluntarily requests to visit the room to calm down, Nokes said.  But it is recorded each time a room is used, she said.

“It’s not a solution to anything, it’s just a tool,” Nokes said. “And when it’s used appropriately as a tool it could be effective just like any of them though.”

The rooms are never used as a disciplinary measure or as a consequence but rather to help de-escalate situations, said Roosevelt’s principal Henry Mack.

“Everything that we do, we do with parents and with teachers and as a team,” Nokes said. “We never make decisions on anything based on something that we think would be right. It’s all part of what the team has decided. And so if it’s an intervention, it’s a child that’s on a plan that we’re looking at, ‘Okay, these are serious concerns that are affecting their own education, the education of others. Let’s call the parents, let’s talk about this, let’s talk about this as an intervention for the student to say, ‘I need a break.’’”

Parental and community concern

But other community members were concerned over the existence of the rooms in general.

“When they say it’s used with the full knowledge and consent of the parents, how many people do you think in this town know that there are padded cells in the schools?” said Patrick McCabe, Rachel McCabe’s uncle. “I like Roosevelt, but just walking by every day, it would never occur to me that they take six-year-olds and put them in a room like that,” he added.

Rachel McCabe claimed that, since the beginning of the school year, her child has spent time in the padded rooms on a nearly daily basis. One of her biggest concerns is that there was no record of how often the room was being utilized, but she claimed to have confirmed it with both her child and his strategist how frequently her child visited the padded rooms. She claimed that the school contacted her only a handful of times.

“I grew up in a place where these types of rooms were illegal,” Rachel McCabe said. “I had no idea that they would be used, and I didn’t find out until two months after they started using them.”

She is now filing to homeschool her child as a result.

Quiet rooms used across the state

North Dakota State law – along with Idaho, Mississippi, New Jersey and South Dakota – does not address the issues of restraint and seclusion in the school leaving the policies up to the school, though there are laws in place applying to people in non-school settings.

Mandan and Bismarck public schools also use these quiet or calming rooms. Bismarck Public Schools has information about their calming spaces on its website under the district’s restraint and seclusion policy, said Cindy Wilcox, director of special education for the district.

“I think it is pretty common to have some place where kids can calm themselves down, you know, if they need a minute to give them some time to pull themselves together,” said Mike Bitz, Mandan’s superintendent.

He said the rooms are almost always used voluntarily and that the parents of the students who use the rooms are aware of their existence. They are not used as a punishment.

Sometimes these episodes can disrupt a whole classroom, and if that can be avoided by a student calming themselves down – perhaps by visiting a quiet room – then that is not a bad thing, he said.  

School board: rooms keep students safe

Dickinson School Board President Sarah Ricks said that the school board would have to decide whether or not this was an issue that the board needed to review, though she said she hoped that the concerns would be addressed at the administrative level within the schools.

“I don’t want there to be a feeling among parents that there’s any sort of secrecy or anything like that about it,” she said. “I think because it impacts so few children that this issue has never come up before, so maybe it’s something that we’ll have to look at in the future.”

Ultimately she said that she thought the rooms were there to keep students safe.

“As a special educator I have seen situations when I was teaching before in which a room like that would have really helped keep a student safe, and so I think that’s what the focus should be on,” Ricks said. “It’s not there as a punishment tool. It’s not there to be secretive or sneaky. They’re just there as a last resort for safety concerns.”