11/29/2012 03:57 pm ET

'Isolation Booth' At Mint Valley Elementary School Has Parents Outraged

A Washington state community is wracked with controversy after a Longview mother posted photos to Facebook of an "isolation booth" for young students at a local elementary school.

Ana Bate, who posted the photos, says the images were taken at Longview's Mint Valley Elementary School. They depict a free-standing padded room that has two peepholes, air holes in the ceiling for ventilation and a metal bar that locks the door from the outside. The photos have gone viral and ignited a storm of criticism.

Bate is furious that the seclusion room has been an institution at the school for four years. She told KATU that her 8-year-old son wasn't placed in the booth, but was forced to sit near the booth for hours as punishment for horseplay. Watching three students being sent to and from the booth during that time traumatized him, Bate said.

"[He was] thinking it was scary, it was abusive, are they going to do this to me?" Bate told the station.

In response, KPTV reports, Mint Valley Elementary's principal issued a letter to parents Tuesday explaining that the room is used for aversion therapy for students with special needs.

"We want to stress that the booth is not used for punishment and it is not used by students other than those whose parents have participated in that child's individualized education plan," the letter reads. Isolation booths are permitted in the state of Washington with written parental consent.

Longview Public Schools spokesperson Sandy Catt told KATU that just eight or nine of the district's 6,500 students use the booth, specifically as a part of a parent-approved instruction or therapy plan that helps "behaviorally disabled students" calm down when they act in a way that can be harmful to themselves or others. Some even voluntarily enter the booth for a break.

"People have their own opinions without having a lot of the information about it. I would not classify it as abusive," Catt told the station. "It is concerning to us that there may not be a complete understanding of the situation."

Seclusion rooms are not uncommon in American schools, and not all states require parental approval for their use. Unlike the Longview school's therapeutic prescription, however, some districts use the rooms as a form of student discipline.

Arizona couple Leslie and Eric Noyes filed suit against the Deer Valley Unified School District and Desert Sage Elementary School in September for repeatedly putting their 7-year-old son in a "scream room" for bad behavior. The family alleged the boy's misconduct was only a product of school negligence.

Parents in Middletown, Conn., similarly protested the use of scream rooms at Farm Hill Elementary following claims that school custodians had to clean blood and urine from the room's floor and walls. School officials pledged an investigation.

While Longview school administrators contend the isolation booth there is exclusively used for aversion therapy, some parents claim their general education children were placed in the booth as punishment without parental permission.

"[My son] said that's the naughty room," mother Candace Dawson told KATU. "That's what he called it. He said when kids are naughty they get put in there."

Officials say they are investigating the allegations, though the district has yet to receive formal complaints from parents who have not already signed consent forms.

Bate, who has another child with special needs, said she has never treated her child with a seclusion room, and doesn't think others should, either, until school officials present medical evidence of its effectiveness. Some parents have suggested they would be jailed for similar practices at home.

But parents who have approved the school's use of the isolation booth say the method has shown results. Niki Favela told the Daily News in Longview that her 11-year-old daughter Star, a student with autism, was so violent that she had been expelled from two schools for hitting, kicking, head-butting and throwing chairs and books. Mint Valley's therapeutic use of the booth, Favela says, has helped Star's self control and transformed her into a "happy little girl."

"To the outside world it seems extreme," Favela told the paper. "[But without the program] our daughter would not have the same opportunities as everyone else."

In light of the growing debate, district officials say they are re-examining how the school uses the booth.



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