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Lawmakers push to end 'scream rooms' for punishing students

When a high school teen acted up in an Indiana classroom a few years ago, his teachers sent him to an isolated room, where he was left unmonitored for hours. He wasn't allowed to leave, for any reason, and was forced to urinate on the floor. As punishment, he was dragged to that exact same room the following day where he screamed, pleaded and banged on the door for someone to let him out. 

When no one came, he tried to hang himself. 

The 2011 case is just one example of how children and teens have been isolated in what are known as "scream rooms," as a means of both punishment and regaining control -- a practice that has been called barbaric and abusive, yet is still being used in several states. The use of scream rooms and other forms of restraint were highlighted in a recent Senate report; individual case studies, which did not identify the students, were shared with FoxNews.com. 

The incidents detail how students -- sometimes as young as 5 years old -- are being locked in the padded cell-like chambers as small as four-feet-by-four-feet. And they underscore the frustrating recourse parents are left with if and when they are notified of their children's treatment. Under current law, parents have few options, but some lawmakers are trying to change that. 

Last year, more than 66,000 cases were documented where children were thrown into scream rooms or otherwise restrained, in both public and private schools. 

In Connecticut alone, there were more than 30,000 instances of teachers and school officials putting students in scream rooms and physically restraining them. Forty percent of the children who were restrained or secluded had autism. A "disproportionate" number -- 53.1 percent -- were either black or Latino students. Just 25 percent of the state's overall population is black or Latino, according to Census figures. 

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, along with Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., now want to change how students are treated by educators and are pushing for more transparency in the discipline process. They are among a group of Washington lawmakers who are pushing legislation that would end the use of these scream rooms, described as "seclusion," and regulate the use of restraints by creating national standards. 

The report defines "seclusion" as locking a child in a room without supervision of an adult; "restraints" are procedures used to physically limit the movement of a child, which have included holding them down, handcuffing them to chairs and, in one specialized school, using electric shock. 

"There is no evidence that physically restraining or putting children in unsupervised seclusion in the K-12 school system provides any educational or therapeutic benefit to a child," Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, told FoxNews.com in a written statement. "In fact, use of either seclusion or restraints in non-emergency situations poses significant physical and psychological danger to students." 

In Connecticut, more than 70 percent of reported seclusions lasted less than 20 minutes; however, 119 seclusions lasted more than two hours. Seventy-eight percent of the 119 were described as emergency seclusions. 

Some incidents of children being restrained are just as alarming as the use of scream rooms. 

Last August in Arizona, a teacher used duct tape to restrain a second-grader in her chair because she was sharpening her pencil too much. And in Kentucky, school officials restrained a 9-year-old autistic boy in a duffle bag as punishment. The child's mother watched in horror while a teacher's aide stood silently by and did nothing as the boy struggled to get out. 

How to handle unruly students has been a thorny topic for the nation's education system. Factoring in special-needs students or those with behavioral or developmental challenges has complicated the issue more in recent years. Slashes to state budgets have stripped schools of the funding needed to train teachers and school administrators on dealing with outbursts or problems with students. 

Harkin's Keeping All Students Safe Act prohibits the use of seclusion in locked, unattended rooms. It allows for physical restraints only in emergency situations, and only if it does not inhibit a student's primary means of communication. 

Among other provisions, the act requires state educational agencies to establish policies and procedures to prevent the need for emergency use of restraints. It also requires schools to notify parents within 24 hours that a restraint has been used with their child, to conduct a debriefing with parents and staff after a restraint is used and plan for alternative methods that don't involve the use of restraints with students in the future. 

The legislation, which has the support of more than 200 local, state and national organizations such as United Cerebral Palsy and the National Disability Rights Network, would also establish a state grant program for teacher and school personnel training. 

But not everyone is sold. 

Lobbyists for school administrators have long opposed efforts by Washington lawmakers to establish a clear set of federal guidelines on how to discipline students. They argue that schools -- and not the government -- should be in charge. 

Thomas Gentzel, executive director for the National School Boards Association, and Daniel Domenech, director of the School Superintendents Association, agree with Harkin that the routine use of restraint and seclusion is "indeed inappropriate" but say the legislation is another example of federal overreach. They argue that it "fails to recognize the need for local school personnel to make decisions based on their onsite, real-time assessment of the situation." 

"Of equal importance, we're also concerned that the bill would allow parents to go to court without first exercising administrative procedures afforded to them under the current Individuals with Disabilities Act," Gentzel and Domenech said in a joint statement sent to FoxNews.com. "This bypass encourages litigation and diminishes congressional intent that parents and school districts collaborate to address student special needs. We're also concerned that the federal court system does not have the capacity to take on these additional cases."