Schools should be instructed to be open about discipline issue

There’s a saying that when God closes a door, He opens a window. But politics isn’t divine, and experience shows that when government cracks a window, it often tries to slam shut a door.

Consider what’s happening in Columbus in response to a series put together last summer by the Columbus Dispatch and StateImpact Ohio, a collaboration of NPR and Ohio public-radio stations, on the misuse of seclusion rooms in public schools to deal with unruly students.

The Dispatch reported that no law governs seclusion rooms — which can range from something akin to a bare oversized closet to a padded cell — and the Ohio Department of Education had provided little guidance and virtually no oversight to schools on their use.

The series surveyed 100 school districts and found that 39 of them had seclusion rooms. But the Department of Education has no idea which districts have seclusion rooms and how they are used, because it has not asked.

The department does not know how often vulnerable children are locked alone in these rooms and does not intend to tell schools to stop doing whatever it may be that they’re doing.

But the department is poised to take some action this week, at a meeting tomorrow. And while some parents and child advocates may see the department’s action as a start, they’re likely to find that in the long run it will become more difficult to find out how some school districts are using seclusion rooms.

The good points

The policy drafted for the State Board of Education will give schools the authority to use seclusion on students only when they are a physical danger to themselves or others. Seclusion will be prohibited as a punishment, or to force students to behave or as a convenience for school employees. That’s good.

The rules will require schools to document each case of seclusion. But then the effort goes astray. The policy makes a point of noting that: “These reports are confidential pursuant to the Family Educational Right to Privacy Act, and a school district is prohibited from releasing any personally identifiable information to anyone other than the parent, in accordance with the requirements of that act.”

A spokesman for the state board dismisses this language as little more than boilerplate and says the intent is certainly not to encourage school districts to make it more difficult for the press, child advocate groups or parents of other children to find out whether a district may be abusing seclusion.

To which anyone in the press would reply, “Poppycock.”

Some use any excuse for closure

Reporters know that those government entities, including schools, that are inclined to be secretive will happily use any pretext for barring access to information that might prove embarrassing or inconvenient.

John Charlton, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education, told the Dispatch that schools should already know that FERPA, the Federal Education Privacy Act, protects only information that could identify a student, such as a name or address. School officials would be expected to release redacted copies of the records, Charlton said.

But legal experts told the Dispatch that the language is fuzzy and would allow those who are so inclined to rationalize denying the public access to the reports. They would claim that any tidbit might make a student “identifiable.”

The time is late, but the state board should either remove the ambiguity or delay action.

That’s not going to happen, according to Charlton, who said the Department of Education isn’t responsible for schools that might interpret the policy as a license to withhold entire records.

“If they want to make that legal fight, that’s their choice,” Charlton told the Dispatch.

That essentially encourages school districts to use public personnel and money to defend their inclination to operate behind closed doors. Meanwhile the press, parents and advocacy groups will have to use their private funds to fight over information that ought to be public.

The state board should do a better job of protecting students against abuse and of honoring the principle of open government. The two aren’t incompatible; indeed, they’re complementary.

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