“I instantly felt anxious being in that space. I couldn’t imagine him being in there,” said Emily LaMarca, the mother of a 12-year-old with Down syndrome.
She has seen her son’s calm room.
The NBC10 Boston Investigators do not have pictures of that room, and she doesn’t want to name the school for fear her son may experience retribution.
“The only thing I remember being in there was a metal filing cabinet — no chairs,” she said.
LaMarca said her son, Cole, was 10 when he was repeatedly put into a calm room, sometimes also referred to as time-out rooms or quiet rooms.
But she does not know how many times Cole was taken to a calm room at his former school, nor how long he spent there.
It turns out that schools in Massachusetts are not required to tell parents their child was removed from class and taken to a calm room, which vary dramatically in size, decoration and furnishings.
Schools also are not required to track usage or report anything to the state. So the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education does not know how many calm rooms are in schools in Massachusetts, what they look like, or how they are used.
School staff and faculty also do not have to tell the principal unless a time out lasts longer than 30 minutes.
“Cole used to call it the naughty room,” LaMarca said.
She said she only learned of the repeated time outs when some incidents escalated into school staff physically restraining Cole. The trips to the calm room were mentioned in those school incident reports.
“We never got information on how long he was in there or how many times a day he went there,” she said.
Cole’s experience at his former school led to a neuropsychologist diagnosing him with an anxiety disorder “related to his difficult school issues…” from “ill-advised behavior management strategies.”
“He was feeling traumatized by this, he started wetting the bed, he was having nightmares,” LaMarca said.
Because the state does not gather any information on calm rooms, the NBC10 Boston Investigators sent a public records request to 351 public school districts and charter schools, asking them whether they use these rooms, how many they had, and how often they were used.
Of those, 100 said they did not use them, 64 said they did, and 90 would not answer either way, saying they did not have “documents responsive” to our request. The remainder did not respond at all.
Massachusetts public records laws do not require public entities like school districts to create records in response to a request or to answer questions.
The NBC10 Boston Investigators contacted 10 districts that reported using calm rooms, asking to see the rooms. All 10 declined.
The LeMarca family is not alone in their concern.
A mother in Lawrence posted a photograph on Facebook in December 2017 of a bare cinderblock wall, no windows, a small floor mat, and a broken chair, a room she said was used as a calm room where her daughter was sent multiple times during the school year.
Chris Markuns, a spokesman for Lawrence Public Schools, said the superintendent at the time, Jeff Riley, ended use of the room and launched an investigation.
Markuns said the chair was not in the room when it was used as a calm space, but did acknowledge that throughout the 2017-18 school year, items in the room that were soiled or damaged were removed and not replaced, eventually leaving it bare.
The room has been renovated, and Markuns said it is now used by students and staff daily as a meeting space to work on behavior and calming strategies. Those meetings are by appointment, rather than after a classroom disruption.
The Disability Law Center, a nonprofit empowered by Congress to provide “protection and advocacy” for disabled individuals, has investigated several complaints that included questionable uses of calm rooms.
“Regrettably, we’ve seen these problems in private schools, public schools, private residential schools,” said Stan Eichner, director of litigation at the DLC.
Attorneys there said that calm rooms can be therapeutic when used correctly. But more tracking and more transparency can make sure the rooms are used correctly, and that students are not taken there as punishment, which is prohibited by state law.
“The question is, does it help when the child is in the room for a period of time, how much learning time is the child missing, are the school officials vigilant about returning the child back to the learning area after he or she has calmed down, as opposed to keeping him or her in the room for a longer period of time just because the child has pushed people’s buttons and it becomes more of a punitive exercise rather than one that’s meant to calm people down,” said DLC attorney Pamela Coveney.
There also is a fine line between time out and seclusion, when a child is locked in a room and left alone. Seclusion is prohibited by state regulation.
In 2017, the DLC investigated complaints at Crowell kindergarten center in Haverhill and found that parents had witnessed staff, including the principal, blocking the door of a closet storage room with a mat that covered the entire door, preventing the child inside from leaving.
The report, released Feb. 1, 2018, describes an “hysterical” 40-pound girl trapped inside. Parents told the DLC some students “spent the majority of the day” or a “half day” in the room.
In a statement to NBC10 Boston last year, the superintendent at the time, James Scully, said the district had just received the report and were still reviewing it.
“Unfortunately, we did not have an opportunity to thoroughly review the findings before it was released to the media," Scully said in the statement. "Since the district was informed of these allegations last year, several of the issues identified in the report have been and will continue to be addressed to ensure that all Haverhill Public School students receive high quality instruction, supports, and services. In addition, significant changes in the Special Education Department have been implemented."
The current superintendent, Margaret Marotta, stated in part, "There have certainly been changes in our practices relative to restraint over the past year, and we are actively adhering to regulations and best practices in the field of special education.
"However, I would not feel comfortable comparing our current efforts to those in the past, as I did not have first-hand knowledge of the events at Crowell," she wrote in a statement to NBC10 Boston.
Bill Lichtenstein filed a complaint against Lexington schools in 2007 over a calm room there.
“It was really very disturbing,” he said.
He said his daughter, a kindergartener at the time, was repeatedly put in what appeared in photographs like a padded closet with a bare light bulb.
“She was in there almost daily over a three-month period,” he said.
He and the school district settled his lawsuit with a non-disclosure agreement.
“If it happened to an adult, there’s no questions it would be something you would say should be prosecuted,” he said.
Lexington Public Schools would not confirm the existence of the agreement in response to a public records request, and would not comment.
Russell Johnston, senior associate commissioner at the state department of education, said the state has recommendations and best practices that schools should use.
“They don’t have to notify the state, but we think it’s a really important practice they notify parents,” he said.
But, he added, “We don’t require it.”
Mark LaMarca, Cole’s father, said the family just wants to change how the rooms are used.
“I don’t want money. I don’t want anything. I just wanted him to be able to go to school and feel comfortable going to school,” he said.
Plano Independent School District in Texas uses cameras, and several years ago they caught an employee knocking a boy to the ground inside a calm room and holding the door shut for several hours.
The district pledged changes, like removing the doors to calm rooms, and two staff members are no longer employed.
The LaMarcas have since moved to a new school district, where they say their son is thriving and there are no calm rooms.