ACLU wants changes to state seclusion rules for Iowa schools

Investigation showed some Iowa City students were secluded for non-violent infractions

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and six Iowa attorneys have filed a petition asking the state Department of Education to revise rules for secluding and restraining students.

The request comes after a state investigation earlier this month showed the Iowa City school district did not handle some seclusion incidents properly, secluding elementary school students for minor infractions, including stepping out of line, having “attitude” or using foul language.

“Seclusion rooms and restraints have been criticized as being used too widely and for punishment of children, especially those with disabilities and African-Americans,” the ACLU said in a news release Tuesday.

The petition, drafted by Mary Richard, a Coralville attorney, asks the Department of Education to revise Chapter 103 of Iowa Administrative Code so seclusion rooms are used only in emergency situations “when a child’s behavior poses an immediate threat of serious bodily injury to the child or others” — and not as discipline or punishment.

The attorneys want the state to better define seclusion and physical restraint and provide specific circumstances in which seclusion and restraint may or may not be used. The proposal also would make seclusion rooms no more restrictive than is necessary.

According to the petition Iowa is among only five states that still permit the use of seclusion when no person’s physical safety is threatened — the others are Arkansas, Illinois, Montana and New York.

“In comparison, 29 states have banned the use of seclusion and restraints to discipline or punish a child,” the ACLU notes.

The Education Department, which has 60 days to respond to the petition, can’t be compelled to change its rules, but must give the proposal “fair consideration,” according to Iowa Code.

In response to a Dec. 21 complaint from Richard, Thomas Mayes, a state Department of Education complaint officer, reviewed 455 seclusion reports involving 64 Iowa City students from Dec. 22, 2015, through Dec. 21, 2016. He also visited two Iowa City schools with seclusion rooms.

The report showed 18 Iowa City students had six or more seclusion incidents in the year studied and some kids were put in the rooms 10 or more times that year. Sixty percent of the incidents were in grades pre-K through 3 and the average length of time elementary students spent in the rooms was 18 to 29 minutes, depending on the grade.

“The vast majority of seclusions at issue met the standard contained in the Iowa Administrative Code,” Mayes said in the report.

However, about 18 reports showed students placed in seclusion for minor infractions that weren’t a safety risk, 30 reports had missing information and three reports showed kids were put in seclusion for more than 50 minutes without permission from a parent or administrator, the report states.

Mayes gave the Iowa City school district 90 days to review its policies, practices and procedures relating to restraint and seclusion and come up with proposed corrective action. Those changes must be made within 180 days.

The district also must convene Individualized Education Program meetings for any child restrained 10 or more times from Dec. 22, 2015, through Dec. 21, 2016. Any student determined to have been denied a free appropriate public education, as required by federal law, must be offered compensatory education, Mayes said.

The Iowa City school district said June 6 many of the department’s concerns already had been addressed, but it would “identify specific actions” to comply with Mayes’s report.

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