In many states throughout the U.S., teachers and school administers will lock students in small spaces called “scream rooms” to discipline them for misbehaving during the school day.
The infractions can be relatively minor – such as swearing too many times or shooting spitballs. And students are sometimes kept in seclusion this way for hours. In one reported case, a student was not allowed out even to go to the bathroom and subsequently urinated on the floor.
Scream rooms aren't just for high school bullies or tough athletes with attitudes either. First graders can be confined in them, as well as kindergarteners. Children sometimes weep and struggle to get away before being locked up.
Scream rooms should have no place in American education. The psychological toll of scream rooms on children and adolescents cannot be overstated. Being imprisoned for hours for perceived infractions of school rules can easily precipitate feelings of panic, helplessness and humiliation in students that end up kindling a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Additionally, even when students do not exhibit nightmares or flashbacks to their captivity, they may try burying their feelings of powerlessness and outrage, leading them to suppress these feelings later in life through the use of alcohol or illicit drugs. Those feelings can also kindle panic disorder and major depression.
I have treated men and women in their 30s, 40s and 50s who (with help) trace the roots of their inability to trust others, or their serious mental disorders, to harsh disciplinary measures perpetrated upon them by teachers during their youth. And these disciplinary tactics are even less severe than being locked in a scream room.
It isn't just the disciplined students who can be traumatized, either. All students who witness someone being confined against his or her will can be negatively affected. Scream rooms are nothing but solitary confinement, and by extension, that makes every school that uses them a prison. They turn principals into wardens and make every student an inmate.
Even if they were monitored by empathetic professionals, scream rooms would still be psychologically dangerous. But we have plenty of evidence that many teachers, bus drivers and coaches aren't always reliable or kind. The vast majority are, but I believe there is a hidden epidemic of bullying by school staff members – not just students.
Just this week, I was consulted on a case in which a child vomited on the bus on his way to school and was made to stay in his fouled seat for the entire ride, even though other seats were available. In another instance two weeks ago, I was consulted after a student was made to clean toilets in his school for not turning in his homework.
If scream rooms have any place in the lives of young people (which I do not believe they do), that place would certainly not be in schools. Locating severe discipline alongside learning has never worked and never will.