STILLWATER, Okla. (KFOR) — News 4 requested data from the Oklahoma State Department of Education to find out how many districts actively use seclusion rooms and how many times those rooms have been utilized over the last two years. Several districts who were included in that data say the information doesn’t accurately represent their reporting.

News 4 first started investigating Oklahoma’s seclusion room policy in October.

A Ponca City Public Schools mother, Erica Buerger, said she was frustrated with the district after her son was put into a seclusion room without being notified first.

Buerger told KFOR her four-year-old son’s pre-K claims his misbehavior was the reason he was placed in the seclusion room.

According to Oklahoma State Department of Education rules, seclusion rooms are permitted.

Seclusion is to never be used for the purposes of discipline, punishment, forcing compliance, or as a convenience to staff. Seclusion may only be used under emergency circumstances, according to OSDE rules.

A student may be placed in seclusion only if:

  • The student’s actions pose an imminent danger of serious physical harm to the student or other individuals, and not merely a threat to property;
  • Positive behavior intervention strategies and less restrictive measures appropriate to the behavior exhibited by the student are currently being implemented, but have not effectively de-escalated the threat of danger or harm;
  • School personnel are present who have completed appropriate training that addresses conflict de-escalation, the crisis cycle and associated interventions, appropriate use of seclusion rooms, and possible effects of seclusion; and
  • The seclusion only lasts as long as necessary to resolve the threat of danger or harm.

If a student is placed in seclusion during an emergency situation that meets the criteria above, the following precautions must be exercised throughout the time the student is in seclusion:

  • The student must be continuously monitored visually and aurally by an appropriately trained school employee;
  • The student must be allowed to go to the restroom upon request;
  • The student must be permitted to drink water upon request; and
  • Immediate action must be taken if the student displays any signs of medical distress.

A room or area where a student is placed in seclusion must meet the following criteria:

  • Continuous visual and aural monitoring of a secluded student is possible;
  • There must be adequate space for the student to sit or lie down;
  • There must be adequate lighting;
  • The room must be equipped with heating, cooling, and ventilation systems comparable to such systems in the rest of the building where the seclusion room or area is located;
  • The room or area used for seclusion must be free of any objects that pose a potential risk of harm to a student with disabilities or a student in distress; and
  • If equipped with a door that locks, the lock must automatically disengage in case of an emergency such as a fire or severe weather.

How long a student stays in the small room is up to the discretion of the school.

“Legally, there are certain parameters [seclusion rooms are] built to. We have different spots throughout our district that may be utilized if a student is exhibiting behavior that threatens the safety of themselves or the safety of others,” said Austin Hula, Stillwater Public Schools Director of Special Services.

Hula added the elementary and middle school aged students typically utilize the rooms.

“One of the benefits with the seclusion space is it’s temporary. As soon as the student demonstrates and verbalizes, ‘Hey, I’m good,’ they can leave that space,” he stated.

Hula said parents are notified prior to the student being placed in a seclusion room and the use of it is a last case option.

Hula has worked with the Stillwater school district for the last 11 years and he recalls seclusion rooms already being an option back then.

“I believe over time we’ll see that use of seclusion naturally decrease,” explained Hula.

Other preventative options are available to the district’s students such as being able to take their frustration out on a padded block.

“Behavior is a big need right now. And so students come to us with some very minor off task behavior to some very intense physical aggressive. ‘I’m going to scratch and bite.’ We want to make sure that not only our students are supported in a safe learning environment, but our staff is supported in a safe learning environment,” said Hula.

News 4 filed an open records request with OSDE pertaining to the utilization of seclusion rooms across Oklahoma school districts over the last two school years.

OSDE’s 2022-2023 data shows Norman Public Schools having used a seclusion room seven times; Stillwater Public Schools having used a seclusion room 58 times; Mustang Public Schools having used a seclusion room 36 times; and Edmond Public Schools having used a seclusion room 44 times.

Stillwater Public Schools told KFOR OSDE’s data doesn’t match the district’s reporting.

“Typically any discrepancies, we’re always happy to work with them on that piece,” said Hula.

For 2022-2023, Stillwater Public Schools reportedly used seclusion rooms 55 times, not 58 as OSDE reports.

Norman Public Schools said it doesn’t even have a seclusion room, so it’s not sure where OSDE is getting a report of seven times during the 2022-2023 school year.

Edmond Public Schools Public Information Officer, Jeff Bardach said the district doesn’t believe the numbers provided to News 4 are correct.

“It’s difficult to tell exactly what data OSDE is pulling from,” said Bardach. “We’ve reached out to OSDE to find out where their numbers came from so we can provide a comparison. Unfortunately, the person we need to talk to with [at] OSDE is out of the office this week, so we won’t have that answer before your deadline.”

Bardach didn’t provide News 4 with the numbers the Edmond district has on seclusion room usage, but said the room is primarily used for high school students.

He added the size of the room varies from site to site.

“For perspective, they can range from the size of an office to a small classroom,” stated Bardach.

Mustang Public Schools Superintendent Charles Bradley told KFOR the district only used seclusion rooms 34 times, involving 13 students during the 2022-2023 school year, not 36 as reported by OSDE.

A Mustang Public Schools “seclusion room.” Photo courtesy Mustang Public Schools.

The school district is also cited as using the seclusion room 172 times during the 2021-2022 school year. News 4 has asked for the data pertaining to that school year and are awaiting a response.

“As we understand the process of reporting, we submit the information into EDPlan and the state department can access it from there. The State Department of Education notified the district on October 11, 2023 that EDPlan has not been updated correctly since March of 2023. We do not know if that error may had some impact on the reported numbers provided to you,” said Supt. Bradley.

Supt. Bradley forwarded a part of the email the district received from OSDE’s Accountability Department on Oct. 11. It says, “Accountability Reporting (AR) receives a daily update file from EDPlan, which is the statewide IEP management system, to identify which students should be classified as on an IEP. Earlier this fall, the Accountability Office discovered that we had not been receiving updates since March of 2023. Thus, any changes in IEP statuses since then have not been reflected in AR.”

Mustang Public Schools said it has reached out to OSDE to determine why the numbers reported to KFOR do not match what the district reported to the state. Supt. Bradley said he has not heard back as of Monday.

News 4 reached out to the OSDE Director of Communications, Dan Isett Monday afternoon for a statement.

While a statement was not provided, Isett told KFOR Tuesday afternoon the data provided is correct as the number of reported seclusion room uses came directly from school districts.

News 4 asked Isett about the email Mustang Public Schools received in October, but he did not address it.