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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Seclusion in Schools and the Failure of Imagination: What Oscar Wilde Had to Say

Several days ago, I began a series of posts based on the op-ed by Bill Lichtenstein in the New York Times on Sept. 9, 2012. Lichtenstein’s piece described the subjection of his then five-year-old, language-delayed daughter to behavior management by seclusion--  in the form of being locked up in a closet with one light bulb in the basement of her public school. Further investigation showed me that in spite of regulation of restraint and seclusion as used in psychiatric facilities, there is much less regulation of restraint in schools, and little or no discussion or training about the use of seclusion itself.

To me, the use of seclusion in a locked room for young children and those with developmental delays signals not so much cruelty as a failure of imagination--  an inability to put oneself in the place of a child left alone (to the best of his or her knowledge) and without the ability to communicate in case of either real or social danger (like needing to go to the bathroom). Five- and six-year-olds regularly demonstrate their fear of being alone and unable to contact a trusted adult. Going to bed every night involves ritual farewells and promises that parents will look in regularly, along with leaving the door ajar and checking the closet for monsters. Emotional empathy or imagination should surely enable us to generalize from those bedtime fears to the terror produced by being locked up alone.

As I thought about the child’s experience in seclusion, something was tugging at my mind--  something someone had written a long time ago that described a similar situation. And I found it: it’s a statement written to a newspaper by Oscar Wilde in 1897, describing his observation of children in prison. Here’s what he said (you can read the whole thing at

“People nowadays do not understand what cruelty is. They regard it as a sort of terrible medieval passion [but]…. Ordinary cruelty is simply stupidity. It is the entire want of imagination. It is the result in our days of stereotyped systems, of hard-and-fast rules, and of stupidity. What is inhuman in modern life is officialism. Authority is as destructive to those who exercise it as to those on whom it is exercised….The people who uphold the system have excellent intentions. Those who carry it out are human in intention also. Responsibility is shifted onto disciplinary regulations. It is supposed that because a thing is the rule it is right…

“ The terror of a child in prison is quite limitless. I remember once in Reading… seeing in the dimly lit cell opposite mine a small boy. Two wardens—not unkindly men--  were talking to him, with some sternness apparently…One was in the cell with him, the other was standing outside. The child’s face was like a white wedge of sheer terror. There was in his eyes the terror of a hunted animal. The next morning I heard him at breakfast-time crying and calling to be let out. His cry was for his parents…”

Readers may point out, correctly, that seclusion in school is not prison, and that the child Wilde described was suffering from many other discomforts in addition to isolation. To the adult, it is clear that there are many differences between being locked for an hour into a basement closet and spending much longer times in Her Majesty’s prisons in 1897. Yes, that’s all true, but I ask you : Does the child know that? Does a five-year-old, who probably cannot tell time by the clock very well, and who has only fairly recently learned what “tomorrow” means, have the capacity to understand that being locked up for an hour does not mean that the isolation will go on all day and all night? Does a child in seclusion know that adults can see or hear her? Does she understand that if she were in extreme distress adults would, or at least could, come and help her? Is she aware that if she wet herself (having no access to a toilet) no one could possibly blame her?  

If the answers to these questions are “no”, which I believe they are, I submit that the experience of the young or handicapped child in seclusion is not substantially different than that described by Oscar Wilde. It is terror, and it is justified only by that officialism Wilde referred to, not by any evidence of a positive effect on later behavior.

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