Investigation: Cedar Rapids school held girl in closet for crying

Pierce Elementary staff blocked door to keep 9-year-old in unauthorized seclusion room

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CEDAR RAPIDS — The Cedar Rapids school district has admitted Pierce Elementary School staff held a third-grade girl in an unauthorized seclusion room not for being physically aggressive — as the law allows — but because she wouldn’t stop crying.

“If I did that, I absolutely would be reported to DHS,” said Tammy Mims, the girl’s guardian, referring to the Iowa Department of Human Services, which investigates reports of child abuse. “There’s no accountability.”

The girl, whom The Gazette is not naming, is like many 9-year-olds, with sky-blue nail polish, a friendship bracelet and a sparkly T-shirt that says “All Girl.” She was matter-of-fact for much of an interview last week, giving a thumbs-up when asked about her summer and describing the book, “A Dog’s Purpose.”

But when the girl recalled April 5 — when she was held in a windowless closet by school staff as she screamed and pulled on the door to get out — her voice wavered and she climbed into her guardian’s lap and started to sob.

“It’s O.K.,” said Mims, who has cared for the girl for years. “We’re going to make it right.”

Last resort

Seclusion rooms, used in many Iowa school districts, are allowed as a last resort when agitated children are at risk of harming themselves or others. Although some psychologists and parents believe seclusion can do more harm than good, the practice reflects the challenges teachers face educating children with mental illness, developmental disabilities or trauma that may cause them to act out violently.

But the rooms aren’t to be used for minor infractions, and never for punishment.

"(The staff) told me it was a seclusion room and I didn’t know what one was, so I believed them. I don’t even know how to spell ‘seclusion.’”

- Girl, 9

Placed in seclusion

 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, along with several lawyers, in June petitioned the Iowa Department of Education to rewrite state rules for seclusion and restraint after a state investigation found the Iowa City school district had 18 incidents in a year in which elementary students were put in seclusion for minor infractions including stepping out of line, having “attitude” or using foul language.

These incidents were less than 4 percent of the 455 incidents reviewed in the probe. An Iowa City task force recommended last month to keep the rooms while trying to reduce their use.

The Cedar Rapids district last year had seclusion rooms at Hiawatha, Truman, Gibson, Harrison, Johnson, Hoover, Polk and Pierce elementary schools; Harding Middle School and Kennedy High School.

But it wasn’t one of these approved seclusion rooms that was used for the 9-year-old girl on April 5. And the episode may never have come to light had Mims not shared documentation from a district investigation. The district declined to provide many details when asked about it by The Gazette.

‘Could not stop crying’

The girl had gotten upset in class, first about not having enough time to finish a test and again when she was told she had to skip recess to finish her work, according to April 20 complaint Mims filed with the state and school district through Mary Richard, a Coralville lawyer.

“The second time, when (the girl) could not stop crying, her teacher and the school secretary lifted her under each of her arms, took her to the school counselor’s office, where an electrical utility closet is used for secluding students, and put her into that seclusion closet,” the complaint states.

Photos of the room taken by Mims show brick walls and metal utility boxes, features that do not comply with Chapter 103 of Iowa Administrative Rules requiring seclusion rooms be “free from hazards and dangerous objects or instruments.” The rules also require “adequate and continuous supervision” in seclusion rooms, but this room has no window to look in.

“I was crying, kicking the door and trying to pull it open,” the girl told The Gazette. “They said, ‘You need to calm down,’ but I couldn’t get out.”

She doesn’t know how long she was in the room — and the school district didn’t document the incident — but she said she finally was able to pull the door open a crack and saw several school staff on the other side.

The staff called Mims and asked her to come calm the child. When Mims arrived, the girl had been released from the room and was in the counselor’s office, where she had scattered a deck of cards, the girl said. When Mims and the child were picking up the cards, Mims noticed the floor at the threshold of the closet was wet and asked the child about it.

“There was a big puddle on the floor of my tears, saliva and snot,” the girl said.

That was the first hint Mims had the girl had been confined in the small room. Mims returned to take pictures of the space and called a lawyer the next day.

The girl said she was placed in that room twice during third grade, although Mims said she did not receive written notice — as required by law — for either incident.

The first time, the room had stuffed animals and an exercise ball. Other third-graders also had spent time in there, sometimes with the door closed, other times open, the girl said.

The staff “told me it was a seclusion room and I didn’t know what one was, so I believed them,” said the girl. “I don’t even know how to spell ‘seclusion.’”

Investigation finds violations

The April 20 complaint asserts the girl’s behavior April 5 did not warrant seclusion and that the room violates state standards.

“My clients, who in good faith enrolled (the girl) in the Cedar Rapids Community School District, are understandably horrified and disgusted upon learning that the district punishes (the girl) — and undoubtedly other eight-year old children — for the ‘offense of crying’ by forcibly confining them in an electrical closet while para-educators hold the door shut,” Richard wrote. “There are no doubt much more developmentally-appropriate ways of dealing with a crying eight year old than putting her in seclusion.”

“Student safety is a primary concern of the Cedar Rapids Community School District. When this incident was brought to our attention, a thorough investigation was conducted and appropriate actions were taken in light of the investigation. We cannot comment further on this matter due to the confidentiality requirements of federal and state law.”

- Akwi Nji

Cedar Rapids School District spokesperson

 

Wendy Parker, the district’s executive director of special services, investigated the complaint and found Pierce staff violated state seclusion rules in four ways:

l The girl “was placed in seclusionary time-out during the incident on April 5th of 2017 when a paraprofessional held the door to the break room in the counselor’s office area shut until the nurse said that the door should not be held shut,” Parker wrote in the April 25 report, which Mims provided to The Gazette.

l The girl “was not physically aggressive or otherwise posing a danger to herself or others during the incident,” Parker wrote.

l Pierce staff did not send the girl’s guardians notice that she was in seclusion, also required under Chapter 103.

l Last, Parker noted, “the room used to seclude (the girl) is not an appropriate room to use for these purposes.”

After the investigation, Parker ordered Pierce staff not to use that room “for any reason, including for voluntary breaks or involuntary seclusionary time-outs.” She also said all Pierce staff would review or receive crisis prevention intervention training on seclusion and restraint procedures.

Pierce staff met May 5 with Mims to develop a plan for working with the girl.

District response

But Mims doesn’t think it’s enough. She wants to know how many other students were put in that room and for the staff who held the 9-year-old girl there to be disciplined.

“They will not admit their part in it,” she said.

When The Gazette asked the district how many times other children had been placed in the unapproved room for seclusion, spokeswoman Akwi Nji said: “There are no records indicating that the room was used as a seclusion room or that the room was sanctioned as a seclusion room.”

She did not answer other questions, including how long Pierce had been using the room and whether any staff members were disciplined as part of the investigation.

“Student safety is a primary concern of the Cedar Rapids Community School District,” Nji said in an email. “When this incident was brought to our attention, a thorough investigation was conducted and appropriate actions were taken in light of the investigation. We cannot comment further on this matter due to the confidentiality requirements of federal and state law.”

Carla Davidson told the district in January she would be leaving as Pierce principal at the end of the school year, Nji said. Kathleen Ziegler is the new principal.

As for the girl, she celebrated her ninth birthday Saturday with a pool party in Cedar Rapids and water-balloon tie dye in Clinton, where she will return to her mother’s house and start school in the fall.

“I’m so proud of you,” Mims said. “No one’s ever going to be put in that room again.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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