State rep: It's 'outrageous' that Portland school still has seclusion room

PORTLAND, Ore. - A Portland school for students with special needs still has a so-called seclusion area despite the fact a new Oregon law requires they be removed.

Seclusion cells or rooms are where students with behavioral problems can be locked up and isolated. They were outlawed in Oregon by lawmakers during the most recent legislative session after a series of KATU stories examined their use in the Pacific Northwest.

The law ordered all schools to remove seclusion cells from classrooms by July 1 and be removed from school buildings in general by September 1.

Christine Miles, a spokeswoman for Portland Public Schools, confirmed that Pioneer Special School does have a seclusion area; however, she said the district plans to leave it in place until they receive guidance from the Oregon Department of Education.

"If new guidelines come out and we can make modifications and be in compliance, we feel like that is the responsible thing to do," Miles said.

When we called the department of education, a representative said they have no plans to give schools guidance on seclusion cells, only on seclusion rooms.

The difference boils down to the structure of the room. The state says "cells" are freestanding and can be removed while a "room" is part of the school's original design.

Miles said they aren't sure if their seclusion area counts as a "room" or a "cell," hence waiting for the ODE guidance. The ODE representative said there are indeed work-arounds that can be put in place.

Still, State Representative Sara Gelser, who sponsored the ban, tweeted it was "outrageous" that Pioneer School hasn't yet removed the seclusion room.

Pioneer school staff at PPS confirms they haven't removed seclusion cells despite law banning them. Outrageous! #orleg #orpol

Sara Gelser (@repsaragelser) August 29, 2013

"I don't understand why they are there. The bill was very clear that they needed to be out of classrooms by July 1 and out of schools premises altogether by September 1, so I hope Portland will come into compliance with the law," Gelser said in an interview with KATU.

Gelser added that seclusion cells are inappropriate, unsafe and an "outdated education method." She pointed out the law passed with almost unanimous support from Democrats and Republicans.

"My interest is just getting them removed so that Portland Public (Schools) is in compliance with the law and the spirit of the law," Gelser said.

Miles said that while the seclusion room was still in Pioneer School, staffers have no intention of actually using it. She was not sure of a timeline to remove the room, as required by law.

Gelser toured Pioneer School while researching her bill.

"I asked to go inside one of these cells, because I had been told that they're very calming. That it can make you feel better. That it can make you relax," she said on the Oregon House floor back in March. "I asked to go inside. I asked to have the door shut. I didn't feel calmer. I didn't feel relaxed."

Seclusion rooms have been used in several schools in Oregon and Washington, but came to widespread attention after KATU reported on one being used at a Longview, Wash. school in November 2012.

After the KATU story, news of the rooms being used at other schools in Oregon and Washington came to light. The news prompted one Oregon lawmaker to say he was "surprised and embarrassed" that these kinds of facilities even existed.