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Aged 12, recently bereaved, put in a booth. A parent speaks out.

In 2016 my son’s behaviour took a turn for the worse at school and indeed at home. This was not an easy year for him with a couple of traumatic events slamming into his already hormonal heart like a ton of bricks. In March his father died suddenly and without any real explanation. My son was 12 at the time.
Almost immediately after this news I became aware that I was pregnant with my second child. My son had to get his head round these two massive events and understandably it was not easy. The issues at school became out of hand quite quickly. Leaving primary with level 5 SATs across the board, although my son was always lively and inquisitive, I had had no big concerns about him previously. School started to send some letters home detailing my son’s placement in the ‘inclusion unit’.

I imagined almost a utopian space where my son would be spoken with and given chances to reflect in a connective and meaningful way which would thus allow him to be included back in the classroom with his peers. I thought he was getting support and understanding for his grief.

At this stage I did not know that he was, aged 12 and recently bereaved, being placed in an isolation unit which was akin to a cell. His offences were more often than not very minor. I have since found out that 20 plus times he was placed in isolation for wearing white socks.
At the end of year 7 I was told due to him having a bad year he was going to be sent to another school for the final week. I was told that here he would be monitored by professionals and reports would be made so that he could get the correct support in year 8. By this point I was starting to feel that something did not quite add up. I had seen a really rapid decline in my lively bright son and he was having frequent meltdowns at home. He was quite often becoming very upset and angry and on a number of occasions he was totally inconsolable. Obviously it was easy to see this as grief but it felt such angry grief that I instinctively felt there was more to it.
I asked to visit the unit where they proposed to send him and I was shocked to find no professionals ready to make reports or connect with his grief but a number of isolation units where he would be spending the last week of year 7. Sent to a cell while his friends said goodbye to their initial year in secondary school. This on top of the fact he was grieving a sudden and unresolved ending just felt totally abusive. I didn’t let him go that week and kept him at home.

I then went into a lengthy and futile battle with the school system over their overuse of isolation units. As a Therapist working in education myself I am perhaps better informed than your average parent to challenge this practice but I got literally nowhere.
My son was put in isolation for ten days back to back once and was a veritable mess. All for minor, low level issues.
The situation did not end well- we had no EP assessment and very limited support at school – I found and paid for a counsellor myself at one point as it seemed school felt we weren’t a deserving enough case. Staff told my child in professional meetings that people had been through worse and there was a real theme of a lack of empathy and understanding. It felt like the isolation units were symbolic of the hostility many paid professional staff exhibited. No doubt due to lack of training staff were more often than not not grief or trauma informed and simply did not know how to support my grieving son.
I now homeschool my son who is studying for 5 GCSEs and has a part- time paid job – he is excelling in all areas but he misses belonging in a place with others his age and I fear this might be something that he will have to work hard emotionally to heal.
I shudder to think what went through his head all those hours he spent staring at the wall not knowing how to process his grief. As a parent I’m furious that my son was put through this and I never want it to happen to any other child.

These units need guidelines and research at the very least. I’m not against withdrawal but I think isolation is torturous, degrading and harmful to children who are 9/10 times the most vulnerable in society. Give them a place to talk, reflect, connect – not a place to breed fury and reinforce the reasons for the challenging behaviour.
Isolation is cruel and 99 per cent of the time ineffective- it’s cheap and it marginalises the vulnerable- that’s why it’s so popular.

Jessica Timmis

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