GARDNER (CBS)– Erika’s 6-year-old son said he doesn’t know why he spent nearly all of a kindergarten day alone in a padded room. She said he wasn’t even allowed out to use the bathroom.

“It makes me sick. He’s a little kid,” she said.

Gardner Public Schools said its “calm down rooms” are not used for punishment, and told the I-Team the rooms give students who are unsafe or overly disruptive a few minutes to cool off. But Erika and Vic said their little boy was left in the room for hours on that day and others.

Ellen Braaten, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and co-director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, said using the rooms in this way amounts to punishment. She called the practice cruel, and said there wasn’t any kind of situation she could imagine where it would be appropriate for a child to sit in a room without anyone else in it or anything to do.

Monica, another parent, told the I-Team her 8-year-old son with autism also spent most of a school day in a calm down room. She said he too was not let out to use the bathroom.

“He’s special needs, and the world needs to recognize they’re not brats,” she said.

A school incident report describes what it called an “overall difficult day” for her son, claiming he had a tantrum for a total of 312 minutes.

“They are hurting my kid mentally and we’re left to pick up the pieces,” Monica said. “He’s literally coming home crying.”

Monica said the report was the only letter she’s gotten about her son being put in the calm down room. Erika and Vic said smiley face charts are the only records the school ever gave them about their son’s behavior.

A “calm down room” at Gardner Public Schools. (Photo Credit: WBZ-TV)

“That room psychologically damaged my child,” Erika said.

The I-Team took the parents’ concerns to Gardner Schools Superintendent Mark Pellegrino, who told them he couldn’t talk about individual children’s behavior because that would be a breach of confidentiality, but told them in general, the rooms are not used for punishment and are not cruel. The point of the rooms, he said, is to eliminate the need for physical restraints.

The rooms are for children who are unable to control their behavior or are unsafe, Pellegrino said. He said sometimes children remain in those rooms longer than they want to.

As for not letting kids use the restroom, Pellegrino said if they are hurting themselves or anyone else, then they wouldn’t necessarily be able to leave the room right then.

“There’s nothing about this that’s good,” Braaten said. “What this is doing to his self-esteem, to his relationships with his peers at the school, it’s troubling.”

Both sets of parents are upset about what happened to their children.

“My son is a good boy,” Vic said. “He can be a pain sometimes but what child can’t. That doesn’t mean he should be locked in a room.”

“I don’t want my kid to grow up afraid,” Monica said through tears. “I want my kid to think he’s a superhero and he’ll grow up to do amazing things because he will.”

In a letter to parents, Gardner Public Schools said 97% of students will never see the inside of one of these rooms. And going forward, it will now let parents know when their child is brought to a calm down room.

Cheryl Fiandaca

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