Mother speaks out about the reaction to CNY Central's exclusive investigation into time out rooms

A plastered-over vent in the ceiling of the 'time out room' / submitted photo

Wendi Starusnak says she can't believe all the negative comments on CNY Central's website, nor the support for the time out rooms she complained about.

Starusnak says she felt she had to "go public in a big way" in order to force Oswego County BOCES to do something about the time out rooms. She says she's glad to hear BOCES has discontinued their use. Starusnak tells our Jim Kenyon she decided to make the time out rooms an issue, because even after she pulled Jenna out of the Fourth Street School, she and her daughter were worried about other children who would be subjected to them. "I couldn't sleep at night knowing that I did nothing for the other children there. So I went public and going public I knew I had to go big otherwise the school would retaliate against me and do a big cover-up and do nothing."

Starusnak says she's also glad the State Education Department investigated her complaint and found the time out rooms to be "illegal."

On April 25th, the State Education Department conducted an unannounced visit to the Fourth Street School and determined the rooms violated a number of safety and educational standards. The State ordered Oswego County BOCES to immediately discontinue the use of the time out rooms.

As reported exclusively by CNY Central, Starusnak and other parents of special needs children complained the time out rooms amount to "child abuse." They say unruly children are locked in the rooms which are no bigger than a small closet, unlit with no padding or furniture for hours at a time.

Contacted Wednesday, BOCES Superintendent Dr. Joseph Camerino once again refused an on camera interview with our Jim Kenyon. He says, "I'm sticking by the statement because of potential litigation on the advice of our attorney." The state Dr. Camerino referred to says, "The State Education Department was asked to investigate the matter and inspected the Fulton site. Following that inspection, the time out rooms in that building were closed in order to make sure that any further use of such rooms was in full conformance with the required regulations. As a further precaution, we have also closed time out rooms on the Mexico campus."

In addition to lodging a complaint with the State Education Department, Starusnak placed a call to the Child Abuse Hotline in Albany which notified the Fulton Police Department. An officer went to the school on April 1st, photographed the time out rooms, talked to the staff, Starusnak and her daughter. The officer also researched the state regulations on time out rooms. On Wednesday, Fulton City Police Chief Orlo Green told CNY Central's Jim Kenyon that because the state allows for the use of time out rooms, and even though the ones at the Fourth Street School may have violated state standards, "It's more of a policy educational issue than a criminal issue."

To which Starusnak replied, "If I had done it at home, I'd be in jail right now and crucified in the media."

Kenyon's investigation has also revealed that parents have been complaining about the time out rooms for years, even though Superintendent Camerino says he was "unaware" of previous complaints.

A number of parents have contacted CNY Central including Beth and Perry Jaquith who say they complained of the rooms 13 years ago when their son Matthew attended the Fourth Street School. Beth says in 1998 she was called to the school when her son had a violent outburst and was placed in the time out room. "My son was screaming and banging his head against the wall|he had a mild concussion."

Perry Jaquith says administrators did nothing about their complaint. "We got the attitude that that's the way it's always been done, so why change it now."

Despite promises that Oswego BOCES is looking into alternative ways to handle unruly children, Beth Jaquith says, "They won't stop using that room|because that's the only way they've got to scare these kids to behave, they'll put them in there for hours on end."

Read on for the original story, and leave a comment below to join the conversation.

Original story posted Tuesday May 3rd:

The State Education Department has ordered Oswego County BOCES to "immediately discontinue the use of time out rooms" at a special education program at the Fourth Street School in Fulton. The order coincides with an investigation by CNY Central's Jim Kenyon into complaints by parents that the rooms violate state standards and could amount to child abuse.

Wendi Starusnak of Phoenix contacted Kenyon last month after she filed complaints with both the Fulton Police Department and the State Education Department. Starusnak says her nine-year-old daughter Jenna Lewis, who has ADHD, was allowed to injure herself after being placed in a time out room that violates state standards. The state allows school districts to establish such rooms as a place for an unruly child to calm down. The rooms must meet certain requirements to ensure the child is safe and monitored, but Starusnak and other parents of special needs children tell CNY Central, the rooms at the Fourth Street School are nothing more than small barren closets, with no lighting, no furniture and a door without an inside handle. Starusnak supplied Kenyon with photographs of the room which she says were taken by Fulton Police looking into her complaint.

She says her daughter would sometimes spend "most of the day" inside the time out room. "This is a school for special education children with downs syndrome, autism... And to lock them in a small closet size room with no light...if you lock me in a small room, I'm going to freak out." Starusnak said.

Starusnak took photos of bruises she says Jenna suffered while she was thrashing around inside the time out room. Jenna told Kenyon, the bruises to her knees, arm and back were the result of banging into what she called "nubs" protruding from the walls of the time out room. When asked if teachers could have stopped her from hurting herself, Jenna replied, "they could have ...They didn't come in to stop me."

Jennifer St. Andrew says her two autistic sons have spent hours inside the time out rooms at Fourth Street School. She says they're more like "a prison" and amount to "child abuse." St. Andrew says her complaints to school administrators went unheeded.

On April 25th, the State Education Department ordered an unannounced visit by the Special Education Quality Assurance Central Regional Office. In a letter to Oswego BOCES Superintendent Joseph Camerino, Regional Associate Irene Buchan found "one or more issues... that require immediate corrective action." That letter includes an inspection report that states: "time out room does not provide an adequate means for continuous visual and auditory monitoring of the student. The room is not of adequate width, length and height to allow the student to move about and recline comfortably. Wall and floor coverings are not designed to prevent injury...and there was not adequate lighting. The room was not free of objects and fixtures that could be potentially dangerous to a student, two small pipes were sticking out of the wall." Those pipes appear to be what Jenna Lewis was referring to as "nubs"

In a statement to CNY Central, Oswego County BOCES Superintendent Joseph Camerino said "The State Education Department was asked to investigate the matter and inspected the Fulton site. Following that inspection, the time out rooms in that building were closed in order to make sure that any further use of such rooms was in full conformance with the required regulations. As a further precaution, we have also closed time out rooms on the Mexico campus."

The statement adds: "Our first and foremost priority is the safety of our students. With the closure of the time out rooms we will be reviewing what is needed to make sure these rooms are safe and fully compliant with all regulations, and reviewing and updating if necessary, our internal procedures as to when to use such time out rooms."

Camerino refused Kenyon's request for an on-camera interview and permission to see the time out rooms in question citing potential legal issues.

Starusnak has removed her daughter from the Fourth Street School program and intends to home school her daughter.

Click here to download and read the above-mentioned documents from the State Education Department and Superintendent Camerino.

Matt's Memo: Time Out, Time is Over.