SALEM — The Oregon Senate voted Monday to make it illegal for schools to isolate misbehaving children in so-called "seclusion cells."
The legislation would outlaw any "freestanding, self-contained" unit that's used to isolate students or lock them up. It would not ban larger rooms that serve similar purposes, such as classrooms used as time-out rooms.
Oregon allows children to be secluded when there's an imminent threat of bodily injury and other ways of controlling the behavior are ineffective. It is unclear how many Oregon schools have seclusion chambers that meet the bill's definition and would become illegal.
"I was surprised and embarrassed that we even had these kinds of facilities" in Oregon schools, said Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield.
A separate bill, now pending in the budget committee, would require the Department of Education to more clearly define minimum standards for rooms used to seclude children.
Critics say seclusion cells are harmful for children and are sometimes used merely as punishment, not to provide a safe space for children to calm down.
Some special-education officials say seclusion cells are an important tool to help children calm down without being physically restrained.
Portland Public Schools has four seclusion rooms at its Pioneer Special School Program for children with special needs.
Use of the rooms is strictly regulated, and the vast majority of uses are for less than 10 minutes, said Erin Hoover Barnett, a spokeswoman for Portland Public Schools. A staff member must stand outside the door and record the child's behavior every minute, she said. If motion detectors can tell that the adult has walked away, the room automatically unlocks.
"They're only used in situations where the student is really struggling and in need of some down time and a controlled space where they can calm down," Hoover Barnett said.
The sponsor of the legislation, Democratic Rep. Sara Gelser of Corvallis, said she believes Portland's seclusion chambers should be outlawed under her bill. Hoover Barnett said the district hasn't done a legal analysis to decide whether their practices would be illegal.
Gelser said she's heard from several parents and children since introducing her bill.
"It's been disappointing and heartbreaking to see kids continue to come out of the woodwork, which tells me this is a very real problem for a not insignificant number of children," Gelser said.
The legislation approved Monday would require schools to remove seclusion cells this summer.
The Senate approved the measure Monday in a 27-1 vote, sending it to Gov. John Kitzhaber.
Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, said he voted against the measure because it creates a mandate for schools to eliminate seclusion cells but doesn't provide any money to pay for it.