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School isolation restraint washington

Yes, isolating a student IS traumatizing. We know.

Even "short" isolation causes pain that can linger for years

My son is a young adult now. But neither of us can or will ever forget what happened to him in second grade. It happened in a local public school district that I don’t need to name – because it’s happened in every public school district in Washington State. Thankfully Washington lawmakers are currently considering two bills, HB 1479 and SB 5559, that would put a stop to it. I for one am urging them to do so.

The it

That year my 7-year-old autistic son was placed in a padded isolation room, alone and without support, after a frustrated teacher deemed him “too overwhelmed” to be in class. It happened not once, but several times. And it might have kept happening if I hadn’t come in early one day to collect him for a doctor’s appointment. Instead of pointing me down the hall to his class,  a sheepish receptionist took me to the isolation room across from the principal’s office. In shock, I looked through the glass in the door at my child sitting alone with terrified look on his face, rocking himself in the way he did when he felt threatened. 

Countless ways to de-escalate

My son was fairly tall, but he weighed 40 pounds wet at the time. And while he occasionally made agitated outbursts in class (as did all the autistic kids in his self-contained special education classroom), he was not hard to control. At the beginning of each year we made a point of telling school staff exactly how to ease him off the ledge when he got overwhelmed or upset. Take him to a quiet corner, hug him, sing John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” or Hush Little Baby in his ear. Scratch up and down on his back or arm. 

Teachers need support

It never occurred to me that no one would intervene when an inexperienced instructor serving her first year in the special education department became overwhelmed and lost in the chaos of seven autistic children. She had limited help from paraeducators or aides in the classroom. I can only imagine how difficult it might have been for her manage behaviors very typical of the spectrum largely alone. 

Still, despite her own overwhelm  — a term and feeling she readily reported to the principal — my son’s teacher was never sat for an hour or more in an isolation room. Instead the principal, and later the head of the district’s special education services, defended the isolation room as a “safe and non-traumatic” way of helping kids calm down. He did not increase her access to supportive aides.

Hurt not help

But here’s the truth: My son was traumatized. As parents, we had never put him in a small room and locked the door. I was traumatized not just by seeing him through that door, but by the realization that the look I often saw on his face at morning drop-off was fear, not a new autism tic.

As I write this, House Bill 1479 and its companion Senate Bill 5559 are circulating through the 2023 session of the Washington State Legislature. They aim to put a stop to the practice of isolating students and more heavily restrict the use of restraint on students in schools. 

A needed change

The bill texts outline exactly why they are needed: 

With the passage into law of either bill, or a joint version of the two, lawmakers have the power to stop schools from scarring children, perhaps for life. Nowhere is that more important than in special education settings. Don’t these children have enough to struggle with? 

The damage is real 

You’d be amazed how long an emotional scar can linger. My son is learning to be a self-sufficient adult. He recently moved back home for a short stay and a return to school. Since he arrived, I’ve noticed he forgets to lock the doors at night more often than not. When I asked him about it, I recognized the look in his eyes, which he tried to shrug off. 

“I don’t like locked doors,” was all he said.

Non-traumatizing? Fifteen years later my son and I beg to differ.


More at Seattle’s Child:

“Tell lawmakers what you want for Washington’s kids.”

About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at