Constable: Teachers say ban on 'timeout rooms' one reason injuries increased
A special-education teacher for 24 years, Kerry Doctor knows there can be dangerous moments working in a classroom with adult-size people who have behavioral issues.
But Doctor says a change in the school's enrollment and the state's recent crackdown on use of locked timeout rooms designed to alleviate tense situations have increased the risk for injury this year.
"I'm not so naive to believe that I won't get some bumps and bruises working with my kids," Doctor says. "I've gotten bit. I've gotten kicked. I've gotten scratched."
But what happened to the 49-year-old teacher on Dec. 16 during an incident with a student at Kirk School in Palatine still has her recuperating at home in Arlington Heights, waiting for her concussion symptoms to stop and her confidence to return.
"I am scared to go to work," says Doctor, saying one fellow teacher has missed work on three occasions this year because of head and shoulder injuries after encounters with students.
Those words land like a gut punch for Judith Hackett, superintendent of the Northwest Suburban Special Education Organization, or NSSEO, which oversees Kirk as well as Timber Ridge and Miner schools in Arlington Heights.
"We don't want anyone to be hurt. Safety is a priority for us," Hackett says. She says data about staff injuries is misinterpreted and focusing on it takes away from the accomplishments in the district.
Doctor, Hackett, veteran school nurse Wendy Rabin and Assistant Superintendent Heather Miehl all speak lovingly of the 190 students, 205 staff members, parents and entire Kirk community. They talk of a shared desire to help students with special needs in a constantly evolving educational system and say that no one makes a career in special education without a passion for the job.
While Kirk staff members had no days missed due to injuries in January 2019 and 32 missed days in January 2020, most of that is the result of Doctor's concussion. The number of staff members treated by a Kirk nurse increased from two in November 2018 to 10 in November 2019, a number that could also reflect a change in student population at Kirk.
Doctor's injury might have been difficult to prevent, but the state's recent prohibition against locked timeout rooms has contributed to other injuries, says Rabin, a Kirk school nurse with 27 years of experience. "We need our timeout rooms back," she says, noting that students free to enter the halls after an incident can cause more injuries to staff or students.
Rabin and Doctor say another factor contributing to this year's increase in injuries at Kirk is a well-intentioned change in the school's population.
A redesign, inspired by the staff, moved Kirk's younger students to Miner and brought more high school students to Kirk. This means a tiny third-grader no longer can end up in the same hallway as a 21-year-old student with behavioral issues. That change made some situations better, and staff injuries have decreased at Miner. Staff days missed at Miner dropped from 19 in January 2019 to five this January, and the number of nurse treatments for the Miner staff fell from six to four that month.
But the move also brought Kirk more older students, who can be difficult to control.
"We've got 300-pound students who get frustrated like 2-year-olds," says Rabin. During a school board meeting in December, the nurse warned, "You are one event away from a catastrophic event of permanent injury or death."
Doctor says, "I'm not exaggerating when I say it's only a matter of time before someone dies." While it wouldn't have prevented her concussion, Doctor says the state's prohibition against timeout rooms took away a valuable safety tool.
Under orders from Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the Illinois State Board of Education did away with the locked rooms in November after an investigation by ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune found that some school districts were locking students in them as punishment.
"It all makes sense on paper, but it's been tough," Rabin says. Saying she is "horrified" at the thought of those rooms being used for punishment, Rabin says timeout rooms used properly make everyone safer.
Last month, the state education board, responding to feedback from some special-education educators, backed off slightly by issuing an emergency amendment allowing timeout rooms, but banned any locked doors and required that a staff member be in the room with a student. Last week, the state board modified the mandates again with a second emergency amendment, allowing staffers to leave a student alone in an unlocked room as long as the staff member stays within two feet of the door. Hackett has testified at hearings in Springfield.
"Has it had a broad sweep in terms of applications for all of us? Certainly," says Hackett. The bipartisan legislative Joint Committee on Administrative Rules might settle on permanent rules at its March 18 meeting.
Kirk offers sleeves, to protect staff members against bites, and a variety of headgear -- from stylish padded stocking caps to recently added sturdier hard-shell caps -- to protect against head injuries. But they are optional, and Doctor wasn't wearing one when her injury occurred while she was with a student during lunch break in the Zen Den, a relaxation room with beanbag chairs, yoga mats and a white-noise machine. The student leaned against her left shoulder while watching a handheld device.
"My guess was that (the student) was watching a video and dozed off," Doctor says. "They wake up and the video was not on, and it made them very angry."
The student, more muscular and heavier than the teacher, reached back, grabbed Doctor's hair and yanked her head so violently the student ended up on the floor, still shaking Doctor's head.
"The student's a love, and a great kid. It's not their fault," Doctor says. "The student's got a smile that won't quit. We have a wonderful relationship."
She pauses and says, "Sorry, I am a little foggy," before she continues her account of the incident, which lasted a minute or two. Using the skills she learned from her annual Crisis Prevention Institute certification, Doctor grabbed the student's hands.
"I wasn't strong enough," she says, recalling how the student was "thrashing" and "grabbing at my shirt" as Doctor struggled. "I was on my knees toward the end. I was really weak."
Finally able to reach the walkie-talkie on her belt, Doctor called for help. Staff members eventually calmed the student, but Doctor says they might have had an easier time doing so using the timeout room under the old rules. Doctor ended up at a local medical clinic.
"I've gone to that clinic before when I have been bitten by students," Doctor says. She was diagnosed with a concussion and sent home.
"The pain at first was excruciating," remembers Doctor, who eventually saw a neurologist who has kept her home on workers' comp, and has used a variety of treatments, including putting a blue screen on her phone to ease the strain on her eyes. "I missed Christmas and New Year's. I can't play soccer. I have a constant headache."
This winter, three of the four staff members on the Kirk safety committee were on workers' comp because of concussions or other injuries gotten at school. Teacher Tom Jaslikowski, one of the three, says leaving a student inside the padded timeout room while a teacher watched through a window and held a button to keep the door locked was the best way to keep the student, the teacher and others safe.
"It really did work well. They would hit the walls for 5 minutes, and then calm down. Once they are safe, they return to the classroom," Jaslikowski says, noting the padded walls prevent injuries and there are no hard tables, chairs or other items that students could use to hurt themselves or others. "It's better for the kids and the staff. It resolves it quicker without a physical intervention."
Setting universal rules for a diverse student population with a variety of ages, sizes, mental health issues, ways of communicating and individual learning methods is difficult, staff members and administrators agree.
"We want flexibility. We want training. We want support," says Hackett, who was in Springfield last week educating legislators about the complexity of students. "We feel very good about the work we're doing."
A Kirk Action Plan Team is expected to roll out a new plan next week designed to help students and staff members avoid situations that have resulted in injuries, Miehl says. Doctor and some other staff members still have injuries and fears that more injuries are in the offing. But Hackett says everyone has the same goals.
"It takes a village," Hackett says. "It was a heavy load this year, but we have an incredibly talented, dedicated staff and Kirk community."