Autistic child’s parents concerned over 3-hour school time-out
Parents of an 8-year-old autistic girl, who attended a Waukee elementary school, want changes made in time-out policies after their daughter was shut in an empty room for three hours.
Doug and Eva Loeffler said they were shocked after viewing a videotape of their daughter, Isabel, who had wet her pants and was struggling to obey the rules so she would be freed from isolation.
“It was more than shock. It was pure mortification,” her father later testified during a legal proceeding. “We saw her hitting herself in the head. We saw her just looking like a wild animal, essentially, for well over an hour, someone who had just lost all control of herself and all hope.”
Teachers watched Isabel continuously through a window. They said she had been placed her in the room because she didn’t want to complete a reading assignment.
The Loefflers immediately pulled Isabel out of school and called a lawyer.
A resulting action against the school led to a 10-day hearing on whether the school district failed to provide Isabel with a proper public education.
An administrative law judge ruled in favor of the Loefflers earlier this year.
The judge’s ruling would have forced the district to educate Isabel differently, but Doug Loeffler recently left his job as an investment consultant with Principal Financial Group and moved his family to California.
As a result, Waukee is not bound to change the way it uses time-out rooms.
Because it was an administrative hearing, the Loefflers cannot seek damages, although they could seek reimbursement for their $80,000 in legal fees. They also have the right to sue for damages in civil court.
There was no penalty for the school district.
Isabel’s experience in Waukee has left her unable to tackle a full day of school, her father said.
This fall, Eva Loeffler will homeschool Isabel, now 10, and she’ll go to school for short sessions.
Isabel’s parents hope to gradually add hours as she becomes comfortable with the staff and the environment.
The Waukee district and the Heartland Area Education Agency, which helped prepare the learning plan for Isabel, are adamant that they did nothing wrong and are appealing the decision.
That ruling against the school sparked attention from advocates in the autism field who hope it will curb the use of seclusion and restraint.
The Iowa Department of Education offers guidelines for time-outs, but schools are not required to follow the suggestions. The Loefflers hope the department will use its rule-making powers to create legally required time limits on restraint and seclusion.
The Lefflers believe, as do some experts, that time-out rooms can be effective for children with aggressive behavior, but as a last resort and for short periods to calm a child. Such measures should not serve as punishment for not completing a task.
“We are not opposing time-outs as a concept in and of itself,” the Loefflers’ lawyer, Curt Sytsma, said during the administrative law hearing in the winter of 2006. “We are no more opposing them than we oppose salt in a recipe, but if you add a whole cup of salt, it’s an entirely different matter.”
School records used as evidence in the hearing show Isabel was aggressive at times – she kicked, spit at, hit students and teachers, jumped on tables, and overturned desks.
But the Loefflers argued that Isabel’s disruptive behavior was triggered and worsened because educators used restraints and seclusion to an extreme. Records show Isabel was in time-out for 100 sessions between September and December 2005, for as many as five sessions in a single school day, and sometimes for an hour or more.
The educators believed they were working cooperatively with the Loefflers to provide an appropriate education for Isabel in the least restrictive environment appropriate, said Roxanne Cumings, Waukee’s director of student services. The strategies they used were supported by education research, she said.
For the 2005-06 school year, Isabel went to Walnut Hills Elementary. Isabel’s educators and parents agreed to videotape more than three hours of Isabel’s day at the school on Dec. 7, 2005. Everyone wanted to analyze what was happening just before the girl’s outbursts.
It was that videotape that led to the Loefflers decision to pull her from the school and protest the use of the time-out room.