Vasquez, who owns Fair Trade Cafe in downtown Phoenix, never thought to ask about the school’s discipline policy. So she was shocked when she was walking her son to his classroom one day and saw a kid sitting in what looked like a closet that had been partially painted black. Aside from a desk and a chair, the windowless room was completely empty.
“I was a little taken aback at first,” she says. “Psychologically, I can only imagine what it does to a young child. It’s solitary confinement, just on a child level.”
Vasquez spent eight years as a middle school teacher before she owned Fair Trade, then began volunteering her time to teach incarcerated women at the Perryville state prison complex in Goodyear. So when she talks about the damaging effects of solitary confinement, she’s speaking from firsthand experience.
“The school-to-prison pipeline is a real thing to me,” she says. “Having been a teacher for eight years, and then going to Perryville — the correlations between the two are eerie.”
When she went to the elementary school’s front office to ask what was going on, she was directed to the student-parent handbook posted on the district’s website. It includes detailed information about the range of punishments for various violations such as tardiness and the use of profanity, but doesn’t explain why kids would end up in a closet.
In an email to Phoenix New Times, Madison Heights principal Priscilla Gossett provided a little more information, writing that the room is typically used when students who are waiting to see her or the assistant principal, or are “serving a consequence for disruptive behaviors.”
“We've utilized this space in the way I shared for the past five or six years, and during that time have not had any concerns shared,” she wrote.
But knowing that kids are only in there for 15 minutes at a time doesn’t make Vasquez feel much better.
“I don’t think it should happen at all,” she says, pointing out that Madison Heights goes from pre-kindergarten to the fourth grade, so the kids being punished are 9 years old and under. “How long should they really even be in a confined black space? Probably never.”
Hope Kirsch, a Scottsdale-based special education attorney, agrees.
“I really thought they’d start doing away with that,” she said when reached by phone. In 2012, she brought a lawsuit against the Deer Valley Unified School District after a parent discovered that her 7-year-old son had been repeatedly placed in a “cool-down room” — a small windowless, padded space reminiscent of a prison cell. That ultimately led the Arizona Legislature to pass a bill addressing the use of restraint and seclusion in schools, which Kirsch helped to draft.
The room being used to discipline students at Madison Heights doesn’t have a door, which makes it marginally better than what she saw in Deer Valley, Kirsch concedes.
But, she warns, “If people are walking by, they might say, ‘That’s the bad kid, he’s always in there.’ You might as well put a dunce cap on him.”
Like Vasquez, Kirsch is a former teacher — before going to law school, she taught special education in New York City schools.
“I am not a fan of punishment,” she admits. “Kids aren’t born bad. No one wants to sit there and misbehave — they’re misbehaving for some reason, whether it’s because they’re not understanding under the work, or because they’re having sensory overload. And if you’re taking a kid who has sensory issues and you’re putting them in there. ... I’m supposedly a normal person, and I’d go crazy.”
The hard surfaces in the room could be problematic if kids are at risk of harming themselves, she notes. And if kids with disabilities are frequently ending up in there, it could be seen as discriminatory.
Beyond that, she wonders what the point is.
“What are they learning in there? This really, really, really pisses me off.”
She and Vasquez both suspect that many parents may not even know that the room is being used as a form of punishment — which would explain why the school hasn’t received any complaints yet.
“I think that’s pretty normal for parents,” Vasquez says. “We think the discipline plans are going to serve our children, but that’s not necessarily the case. I do take responsibility for being a parent and not even knowing about this — if anything, I just encourage parents to really dig into school policy and be an active part of creating it.”
Update: Principal Priscilla Gossett writes, "The safety and security of Madison Heights' students is our top priority, Madison Heights does not, nor ever has put children in solitary confinement."