State inspects 'seclusion cells' to determine whether they're legal

PORTLAND, Ore. - State inspectors examined "seclusion cells" at Pioneer School in Southeast Portland on Thursday to decide if they're banned by a new state law.

Rep. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, the state lawmaker who worked to ban those cells, was with the inspectors. After the inspection, Gelser was just as determined those cells should be banned as she was months ago when she got the law passed.

At the same time, the Portland school district thinks the cells serve an important purpose and is hoping the state decides they don't violate the law.

The district removed the doors on the four small rooms Tuesday as proof they won't be used this school year unless the Oregon Department of Education says they're legal.

But there is a sticking point: The new law bans "seclusion cells," which "means a freestanding, self-contained unit."

The district says the seven by seven-foot cells are actually built into the structure and share walls with the building.

But Gelser said the new law was written because of what she and others saw at Pioneer.

"If Portland wants to come and kind of come up with some definition of a word in there to say, well, it was clear this is what you were talking about, but we're not going to do it because we have this alternate definition, it's frustrating because we worked with Portland, we had many, many hearings, it would have been nice to have that raised a while ago," Gelser said.

She can't believe the district won't give in.

"The Legislature couldn't have been more clear," she said. "There would not have been House Bill 2756 if it were not for the seclusion cells at Pioneer School. It was written about this school and these cells."

District spokeswoman Christine Miles said if the state finds that the rooms are against the law, the district will remove the rooms.

"We specifically asked for guidance with this, because we don't want to remove these rooms and spend a lot of money doing that if we only have to modify them a little bit," she said. "But if they come back and say they have to be removed, we will."

Pioneer is for kids with severe behavior issues.

The school district says the rooms serve a valuable purpose for the safety of students and staff. It says children would only be put in a room if they were out of control and kicking, punching or biting.

The district argues the rooms are often as much for the child's benefit as the staff, because they offer a temporary and safe place for them to calm down.

The rooms were inspected and approved by the state in 2008 when they were built. But rules changed to require bigger rooms. One question is whether the rooms are grandfathered in under the old standard.

KATU was not invited to be there while the Department of Education inspected the cells. The department is expected to issue a ruling something next week.