What is isolation and why is it harmful?

Restraint and isolation (also called seclusion) are controversial practices used in schools to control behavior.

There are state and federal movements to end the use of isolation and limit restraint.


Restraint and isolation cause physical harm and sometimes death; severe psychological and emotional harm; suicidal ideation; anxiety; and depression. Research shows there is no educational, behavioral, or therapeutic benefit to the practices.

In Washington, both are legally limited to situations in which there is an imminent likelihood of serious harm; both are supposed to be rare occurrences. But a review of data shows incidents are not rare and are used in ways that are not legal.

Last year, the US Justice Department ordered the Spokane School District to end the practice if isolation after finding the district discriminated against students with disabilities by illegally, inappropriately, and repeatedly restraining and isolating children with disabilities, depriving them of equal access to education and the opportunity to succeed. In a separate investigation, Disability Rights Washington and the ACLU of Washington found similar patterns at schools across the state.

State data show restraint and isolation are overwhelmingly used on:

  • Students with disabilities (92%)
  • Young students, in grades K-5 (80%)

They are also used disproportionately against students who are Black; students in foster care; and students experiencing homelessness.

In a report to the state legislature, the Crisis Response Workgroup recommended eliminating isolation and chemical restraint; improving access to student supports; increasing training in de-escalation practices, and improving incident reporting.

In 2019-20, there were 25,145 instances of restraint and/or isolation in Washington, involving 3,825 students. Numbers dropped during the pandemic when most students attended school remotely. Post-pandemic numbers are not yet available.

Legal definitions:

  • Restraint means physical intervention or force used to control a student. It does not mean using a hand to guide a student; it does not mean use of a prescribed medical, orthopedic, or therapeutic device when used as intended; or use of a safety belt used as intended.

  • Restraint device means a device used to assist in controlling a student, including but not limited to metal handcuffs, plastic ties, ankle restraints, leather cuffs, other hospital-type restraints, pepper spray, tasers, or batons. Chemical restraint means using medicine in a way not authorized by the prescribing doctor.

  • Isolation means restricting the student alone within a room or any other form of enclosure, from which the student may not leave. It does not include a student's voluntary use of a quiet space for self-calming. It does not include temporary removal of a student to a supervised, unlocked area