When twelve-year-o1d Jim and his mother moved to a predominantly rural school district in southern Illinois, she had hopes for a new beginning for her son. She informed Mr. Jones, the principal of her son's new school, that she had recently divorced her husband, Jim's stepfather. She and her children had left their former home primarily because he had abused them. Assuming that Mr. Jones would understand, she said, "I know Jim has emotional problems and will sometimes misbehave. He may get into fights. Please let me know immediately if he needs to be disciplined, and I will cooperate with you. The child abuse counselor said that severe punishment will only make matters worse. The school psychologist told me to give Jim lots of support, encouragement, and opportunities to talk about his feelings of anger. If punishment is necessary, I have learned to use withdrawal of privilege or time-out."
Mr. Jones, a tough guy from the "old school," was glad to learn that Jim's mother approved of time-out. Much to her dismay, he informed her of his "reasonable" use of paddling. He assured her that he believed in time-out and would be happy to use it if necessary. He had a special time-out/in-school suspension room that worked very well. Woe to any student in Mr. Jones's school who tried to get away with anything. A man from the "don't smile until Christmas" school and an ex-military man, he stated, "I know the importance of discipline and punishment!"
Sensing the potential for trouble, Mr. Jones laid in wait for Jim's first indiscretion. It wasn't long before Jim was subjected to the testing and teasing that bullies so often feel they must inflict on newcomers. Jim controlled himself as he had been taught in therapy and did not use his fists in response to the teasing, an accomplishment he was proud of. Unfortunately, he did refer to certain alleged unsavory traits of the bully and the bully's mother. These were reported to Mr. Jones, who was waiting for the chance to bring Jim to heel.
Aware that he should go easy on the paddling, he used it sparingly, giving Jim three licks. Then the boy was consigned to the time-out room, a windowless, poorly ventilated supply closet. He was sentenced to spend five full consecutive school days there, with nothing to do. Despite her request, Mr. Jones neglected to inform Jim's mother, nor did the hapless, resentful Jim, who became more and more angry at the principal.
In a predictably increasing spiral of misbehavior and punishment, Jim became a regular visitor to the time-out room. Conditions finally became unbearable for Jim when he was sentenced to spend two weeks in the room during a heat wave in June. He finally told his mother what had been going on.
I was asked to provide expert testimony in the ensuing litigation against the school. The school could find no credible experts who would testify that Mr. Jones's use of time-out had any professional or effective purpose in helping Jim improve his behavior I found that it had caused severe problems. After expensive initial litigation, the school and the insurance company settled out of court. No one won since much of the settlement money went to provide psychotherapy for Jim and his angry, depressed, and distraught mother.
The story of Jim may seem bizarre to those who understand the use of time-out, but similar cases occur all too often. During the past few years, I have been increasingly asked to testify against educators who send children to extended periods of solitary confinement for offenses and under conditions never recommended by the psychologists who developed the procedure.
Some educators have developed unreasonable and irrational variations on the theme of time-out. Time-out has caused anguish for many children who have experienced virtually the equivalent of solitary confinement in jails. They have been locked in school safes, buried in boxes, left in unventilated, stifling storerooms, and confined in all manner of uncomfortable boxes for periods lasting from days to weeks (Hyman et al. 1987). In a case in the Northwest, the teacher not only confined the children in a specially built box as punishment; she tied them to their chairs with nylon ropes that caused rope burns when the children struggled to get free. The following is a case example of a particularly brutal example of the misuse of time-out. I have changed the names at the mother's request, although much of what I report here was in the local press where the incident occurred.
In the mid-1980s, Shirley was a high-achieving, happy, outgoing first grader in elementary school. During the last few weeks of school, Shirley learned, through overhearing her parents' conversations, that several couples who were close family friends were having intense marital discord. Divorces seemed imminent, and her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Jones, were quite upset. The Jones were having no marital problems, but Shirley came to believe that they too were considering divorce. She became convinced of this when her father went on a business trip. As a result, for no apparent reason to her teacher, she began crying in school. For three straight days, Mrs. Jones was called to come to school to calm her daughter. On the first two days, she took her home. When Mrs. Jones arrived on the third day, she was dismayed and angered to hear what had been done to stop Shirley's crying.
Shirley's teacher had taken her to the principal, who came up with a solution. "Bend over and touch your toes," said the principal. "I have a perfect way to stop your crying." When Shirley responded as requested, the principal paddled her. Mrs. Jones blew up at the principal, excoriating him with admittedly somewhat obscene language. After letting the principal know how she felt, Mrs. Jones calmed her daughter and decided to leave her in school.
What happened next was worse than anything Mrs. Jones could have imagined. Worse, she did not find out for two years, when Shirley was finally able to talk about it. When Shirley came home after the day of the paddling, her mother discovered Shirley's fears of divorce. Surely mother's reassurances would end the crying.
During the summer following first grade, Shirley started to have intense headaches and nosebleeds when under stress. Her mother, who suffered from stress-triggered migraines, assumed that her child was having similar problems. Aspirin relieved the headaches, but the stress-induced nosebleeds did not appear to be treatable. In second grade the child had a warm-hearted, supportive teacher. However, Shirley began to exhibit a new and disturbing set of behaviors. Her self-image plummeted whenever she received a poor grade. When anything negative happened, she reproached herself: "I can't do anything right" or "I'm no good." Perceived failures were followed by periods of silence and withdrawal.
The situation improved dramatically when the family moved to Texas and Shirley enrolled in third grade. About halfway through the year, Shirley finally revealed to her parents the tragic sequence of events that had occurred that day, two years earlier, after she had been paddled and her mother had left her in school.
Shirley reported to her mother that she was escorted to a clothes closet across from the nurse's office. The principal and the nurse sat Shirley, still crying, on a stool in the closet, turned off the light, and closed the closet door. When Shirley continued to cry, the nurse stuck a sock in Shirley's mouth to muffle the noise. When the child did not cease sobbing, they enlisted the help of one of Shirley's chums, who was requested to enter the closet and told to try to calm Shirley. This did not work either. Eventually the tears did stop, but obviously the combined traumas became a source of longstanding stress.
While enrolled in third grade in Texas, Shirley's headaches and nosebleeds subsided, and fourth grade was a good year for her. However, when Shirley discovered that the family was going to return to her old home town, she began again to have problems with headaches and nosebleeds. The problems worsened in fifth grade, and the parents sought psychological help. Psychotherapy was begun, and the symptoms subsided.