MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Chances are, inside your child's school, there is something known as a "seclusion room." Many of them are about the size of a walk-in closet, and they may look like something you would see inside of a prison, not a school.
While these rooms are used as what schools call "a last resort" to prevent harm to a student or teacher, opponents say they do not work and should be banned. There is nothing illegal about using "seclusion rooms" in several states, including South Carolina, but there can be serious consequences if they are not used correctly.
For the past several months, one local mother, who does not want to be identified to protect her son, has been trying to figure out why her child who has autism ended up in a place she says she did not know existed until last school year.
"This problem or this issue doesn't just affect my son, it affects anyone with a child who has problem behavior," explained the mother.
Earlier this year, her 12-year-old child was placed in a seclusionary time out room at Forestbrook Middle School. The school is part of the Horry County School District.
According to district procedures for the 2014-2015 school year, the school should have not only contacted the parent prior to her student being placed in seclusion, but also been given permission to move the child inside the room.
Findings by the South Carolina Department of Education on the incident state that contact did not happen. In fact, according to a letter sent from the state to Horry County school leaders, the district admits that on not one but two occasions in January and May of this year, it did not follow its own procedures for placing the same child in seclusion.
The report details one case where the student's mother says his aide went to find him after an outburst at school, only to discover he had been put in a seclusion room without the mother knowing.
"She went with the [school resource officer] to the room and she found him in there behind a locked door," the mother added. "She found him in the interior room with the teacher was locking him in, holding the knob so he couldn't get out, and she said he was in the fetal position on the floor."
This mother's child is just one of 48 students in the Horry County School District who at some point during the last school year were secluded. The district says many of them have special needs or a disability.
That is a trend reflected nationally, according to the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. It found more than half of all students placed in seclusion or involuntary confinement have disabilities.
The mother we spoke to says this ordeal has been traumatizing for her son, who is also non-verbal. She says he doesn't like to revisit what happened last school year.
"He asks me not to speak about it and the way that he does that is he puts his hand on my mouth or my throat and ask me to stop," she says.
We asked Horry County Schools to show us a seclusion room to give parents a look at something many of them may have never seen before and to also see what safety measures are in place.
The school district showed WMBF News a room, and stresses that every single seclusion room it uses within district lines has been approved and is ready for use.
"The primary and most urgent thing you need to do is to get that student in a safe place to minimize any potential further risk to him or herself or to anyone else," explained HCS spokeswoman Teal Britton.
Currently, no federal law limits the use of seclusion or restraints in schools across the United States. However, there are a number of recommendations and guidelines from many agencies on how seclusion should be used.
South Carolina's Department of Education strongly discourages schools from placing students in seclusion under any circumstances. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote in a 2012 report that every effort should be made to prevent the need for restraint or seclusion. Duncan also cited reports documenting cases that have led to serious consequences, including death.
Even though Horry County Schools cannot comment on specific cases, WMBF News asked the district if a student could be injured while a teacher was trying to move the child to seclusion.
"Certainly, any time you have two physical beings and one is trying to contain the other," Britton responds. "But from our point of view, we are trying to keep a student from hurting themselves or someone else."
The district also says besides students, teachers may also be injured during these cases by a student. Despite the risk of injury and a number of groups pushing for bans on seclusion rooms, this process of trying to diffuse a situation is not going anywhere at the moment.
"I don't think that Horry County Schools are in favor of using them themselves," explained Britton. "We're not promoting the use of seclusion rooms and it is not a front line defense or recommendation - it is a last resort."
While there may be no change in policy for the use of seclusion this school year, there are changes in procedure. These changes were required by the state according to report findings sent to the district following the case of the 12-year-old boy being placed in seclusion twice last year at Forestbrook Middle.
"The change in procedures simply changes to allow what happened last year to happen," Britton said. "That is when and where necessary in the most extreme cases to take action immediately to protect the child."
Basically, instead of having to reach out and get consent before a student is placed in seclusion, schools can now move a student into a seclusion room without prior notification. They must also tell parents within 24 hours after a child is placed in the room that their student was in seclusion.
For some parents, including the one we interviewed, the changes are not enough.
"I'm just not sure if they can keep my son out of that room," the student's mother added. "Obviously they are having a hard time following procedures."
The Horry County School District held development training days for most teachers and faculty members to go over the changes regarding seclusion ahead of the new school year. The district says by the end of next month, all staff members who need know about the new procedures will have gone through this training.