TRINITY — Closet-sized seclusion rooms are a fact of life in some Seven Springs Elementary School classrooms.
The school takes in children with emotional and behavioral disabilities from across southwest Pasco County. Sometimes those students become so agitated that putting them alone into the locked, dimly lit rooms with bare walls and viewing windows becomes the last option to protect them and others.
This year, one child landed inside after just two days of classes.
"We don't like to put our hands on children, and we definitely don't like to use secured seclusion," principal Vicki Garner said. "Secured seclusion has always been a last resort for us."
Soon it might not be an option at all, which has made some educators nervous.
The Pasco County school district, which five years ago had the third-highest number of seclusion incidents in Florida at 545, has set a goal of eliminating the practice by the end of this academic year. Pasco would join 28 other districts, including Hernando, that have ended seclusion.
Hillsborough schools used seclusion 50 fewer times than Pasco last year, according to state records, while Pinellas schools used it 29 more times. Both districts are much larger than Pasco.
"Based on more recent research, and people being able to articulate the trauma they have experienced, we don't feel it's in the best interest of children," explained Melissa Musselwhite, Pasco's director of student support programs. "We thought there were no other choices before."
New state reporting requirements forced the district to count how many times teachers were restraining or secluding children. The numbers shocked local educators, prompting them to act.
"The law helped us understand what our practices were," special education supervisor Jackie Choo said. "We had to take ownership of it, and we have to take action to make things better."
That sentiment was driven in part by state and federal concern over restraining and secluding children with disabilities.
The U.S. Department of Education began discouraging the practices in 2009, after Congress held hearings on their misuse. Some bills were filed to curtail their use but never got through.
In 2012, education Secretary Arne Duncan issued guidance to school districts. Topping the list of 15 key principles: "Every effort should be made to prevent the need for the use of restraint and for the use of seclusion."
Florida leaders also talked about reducing restraint and seclusion. Several bills died in the Legislature. But the sentiment remained that, in the words of a 2013 piece of failed legislation, "The need for seclusion or restraint is, in part, a result of insufficient investment in prevention efforts."
Pasco County officials agreed, and said they're moving slowly to eliminate seclusion and ensure staff receive training on alternatives. The district is reducing its use of restraint, but Musselwhite said it would not eliminate the practice because times arise when teachers must hold back a student to prevent harm, such as when a child is about to run into a busy street.
The county's seclusion numbers have declined, from 545 in 2010-11 to 234 in 2013-14. Several schools never used it.
Teachers at schools such as Seven Springs have begun getting trained on other ways to de-escalate students without putting them in the seclusion rooms. ESE officials are looking at nonviolent crisis intervention techniques.
One monumental step in the works is the pending removal of seclusion room doors.
Instead, schools would create more welcoming and comfortable calming stations, with things like bean bag chairs and quiet music. Students could go there on their own, or with encouragement, after learning about coping strategies and identifying the need.
That change could alter students' perception of seclusion.
"We never use it as a punishment," said Jennifer Hykes, who oversees restraint and seclusion for the district. "But the student might think of it that way."
The move requires deliberation, though. Some at Seven Springs Elementary aren't sold.
Teachers and aides there said they worry about what they will do when they really need a room with a door to contain a student who has become a risk to others.
"I know when (students) need to go in there, they need to be away," said Tracy Wilson, the school's behavior specialist.
Principal Garner suggested that the fear of the unknown can be unnerving and predicted her team members would accept the changes once they see how the replacement plans benefit the students. She expected a slow introduction to the concepts, perhaps one room at a time, to ensure they work.
She also counted on the "amazing" staff to make any change succeed.
"They love the population of students we work with," Garner said. "That's the key to everything. You can take my doors. Just don't take my people."
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.