DENVER - The CALL7 Investigators have learned a Colorado school district has been keeping students isolated in 4-foot by 6-foot rooms for weeks as an alternative to expulsion.
The program in the Center Consolidated School District was designed to keep disruptive students in school, but critics -- including parents and two school board members -- say it went too far. District leadership admitted to mistakes in the past, but said they are now making changes.
One student, Rene, told CALL7 Investigator John Ferrugia he spent eight weeks in a room he said district employees referred to as a cell.
"I had a dream that the walls were closing in on me and that they were squishing me," he said. "You get desperate to walk around."
Rene was assigned to the district's Alternative Expulsion during the 2013-2014 school year. So was 12-year-old Evan.
"We went in the box and I closed my eyes, put my head on the desk, and took deep breaths to calm myself down," he said. "I thought I was going to be in there forever."
Evan, Rene, and other students spent each school day, about seven and a half hours, sitting in a chair at a small corner desk, facing the wall.
Evan's mother, Cora, said her son was assigned to the program after 10 "referrals" for non-violent incidents, including passing notes in class. She is a single mother and said she could not stay home with her son if he was expelled. But she said when she agreed to let him be placed in the alternative program, she had no idea he'd be isolated in a small room.
"When I walked in there and I saw where he was at, it was heartbreaking. I don't wish that on anybody," she said. "It crushed me, it killed me, it broke my heart. He's not an animal."
Cora said she believes the program was abusive.
"If I would have locked him up in a room, or enclosed him in a little box in my house like that, I would have been so in trouble," she said. "It would have been considered child abuse. I would have had social services in my house."
Phil Varoz, a former Center school district Superintendent who now serves on the district's school board, said he first learned about the isolation program by chance.
"The first thing I thought of was, 'These kids are being tortured,'" he said. "We walked in, no adult supervision at all. Turned the corner, and he said, 'These are the three cells that we have,'" Varoz said.
Varoz started looking into the program, and learned children as young as eight had been placed in the rooms for weeks. The program has been in force for years.
"They're breaking the kid, they're not teaching him to behave the way people behave in society," he said.
Varoz protested to the state Board of Education, his own fellow board members, and Superintendent George Welsh, who agreed to remove the doors from the rooms.
Welsh, who was recently named Superintendent of the Year by the State Association of School Executives, admits the program had problems.
"Kids that were in this program last year weren't treated right," Ferrugia said.
"I agree, yes," Welsh said.
Overall, the state of the small rural district has steadily improved over the 17 years Welsh has served as Superintendent. He said he is committed to keeping kids in school.
"I've lived here when kids were dropping out, when they were expelled into their homes, and I saw the graffiti, and I saw the gangs," he said.
Welsh said he established the Alternative Expulsion program to keep kids off the streets, but did not specify any rules about the treatment of students in solitary. So until this year, kids were often unsupervised, got no exercise and no access to counselors, and were served sack lunches in the rooms.
Welsh said this year, things will be different.
"Unfortunately, we made some mistakes," he said. "We have codified those things we expect in the program."
Welsh said students in the program now receive counseling services, get exercise twice each day, and eat lunch with others.
Cora said those changes are too late to help her son, who suffered for weeks in isolation.
"Nobody, nobody should be put in a room like that," she said.
Center's alternative expulsion program has been in place for at least a decade with no intervention by the Colorado Department of Education -- and when Varoz notified the state Board of Education, it took no action.
Friday at 10, the CALL7 Investigators ask the state who is monitoring school discipline in Colorado.