30 Nov 2016

Seclusion rooms needed for student safety, school says

1:45 pm on 30 November 2016

A Palmerston North school is warning it may need to exclude a special needs student if it cannot keep using its seclusion room.

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Awatapu College said a seclusion room had been used in its special needs unit. Photo: Google Maps

Education Minister Hekia Parata plans to make the use of seclusion illegal following revelations that schools had been placing disruptive children in small, locked, cell-like rooms.

However, at Palmerston North's Awatapu College special needs unit, a seclusion room has been used to keep students and staff safe when a violent student has lashed out.

The chair of its Board of Trustees, Jeremy Neild, said for years it had been used by only one student.

"We did have a behaviourally challenging boy that used to get into a rage quite quickly and he would headbutt and kick staff if he got obsessive about something. He was put into that room while the staff called the police.

"That was quite an extreme case and quite rare," he said.

Mr Neild said the safety of all staff and students was the priority, and if the rooms were outlawed that safety could be compromised.

"It would leave the principal with little alternative but to suspend the student, they would then come before the disciplinary committee of the Board [of Trustees], and if we didn't feel that we could reintegrate him back into the school while ensuring the safety of students and staff then we'd have to exclude or expel the student," he said.

Mr Neild said the alternative method of removing the rest of the class was not easily done in a special needs unit.

The entrance to the discipline room at Miramar Central School.

Seclusion rooms, like this one pictured at Miramar Central School, are to be made illegal. Photo: Supplied

"Some of our students would be relatively slow to respond to a directive to leave the room quickly," he said.

But Ms Parata told Morning Report that while seclusion rooms used to be acceptable - as did corporal punishment - that was no longer the case.

She said an expert group had worked on guidelines for behaviour management, which provided levels of intervention.

Those included identifying who the challenging students were, talking to their parents about what steps to take at what stage, what the catalyst for the behaviour might be and taking all steps to ensure the child's safety.

She said school staff could use 'low sensory spaces' instead of seclusion rooms.

"Seclusion is defined as being a room, lockable from the outside, into which a child is put involuntarily and cannot remove themselves from.

"A low sensory room ... is a safe place, where the children understand that they can take themselves to, or a teacher can send them to, because there is an unacceptable behaviour."

Ms Parata said if schools reached a point where they didn't feel they could control a child's behaviour, they should call others, such as police, who had a different jurisdiction about restraint.

"But for schools we have been clear about what the level of physical constraint can and can't be."

Ms Parata said Awatapu had been identified as one of 17 schools which have used seclusion rooms in the past year.

The 2500 schools across New Zealand used good practices, she said, and claims about alleged abuse and seclusion of pupils at a special school in Dunedin were in dispute.

She said a statutory manager had been put in place at the school while they were investigated.

School on ministry list says it doesn't have a seclusion room

Meanwhile the chair of an Otago school board said it had never had a seclusion room, despite being named by the Education Ministry as one of 17 schools with one.

Elmgrove School board chair Ben Baxter said he was baffled that the ministry was calling the room it sends students to cool down in a seclusion room.

He said the room was naturally-lit, has a bean bag, a desk, no locks and is used for music classes and student testing.

"If a child is misbehaving in a classroom and gets angry and disruptive, and it comes at a point the where other children are at the risk of being hurt, we believe that child needs to be removed from the situation and needs to cool down somewhere.

"There is always a teacher, or a teacher aide, there keeping an eye on this."

Mr Baxter said there had never been a locked cell-like room at the school.

He said the ministry might have identified its facility as a seclusion room because at extreme times it had put children in there for the safety of others.