Iowa City schools consider eliminating seclusion rooms

Committee of parents, staff and experts to mull best ways to deal with agitated kids

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IOWA CITY — The Iowa City school board has asked district officials to form a committee to recommend whether to keep, eliminate or modify seclusion rooms used to prevent agitated children from harming themselves or others.

The committee of teachers, parents, support staff, community members and child behavior specialists will meet early in 2017 and come back with recommendations for the board, Superintendent Stephen Murley said. The group will consider whether the rooms are needed to prevent injuries to staff and students, the appearance and location of the rooms and possible alternatives.

“Our conversation, internally, has run the gamut from retention (of the rooms) as is to total elimination,” Murley told the board at a work session earlier this week.

Under state rules, if a student’s actions in the school threaten harm, and attempts to defuse the behavior fail, staff are allowed to restrain a child and place him or her into seclusion.

A Gazette review of seclusion room reports from the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids districts showed 125 occasions when elementary children were placed in seclusion rooms during the first month of the 2015-16 school year. Kicking, biting, hitting and throwing items triggered isolation in most cases, but a few reports showed staff putting kids into seclusion for non-violent acts like refusing to trace in pencil, stepping out of line at recess and pouting, the investigation published in September found.

School Board Members Chris Liebig and Phil Hemingway said last month they wanted to see seclusion rooms abolished in favor of larger, more comfortable spaces students could use to calm down.

A 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Education says “there is no evidence that using restraint or seclusion is effective in reducing the occurrence of the problem behaviors.” The report recommends positive behavior interventions and supports, a program the ICCSD is already using with success, district officials said.

Heather Young, of Iowa City, has a granddaughter who is in a special education classroom, said she thinks the study committee is a positive first step for the district.

“Something is always better than nothing, which is what has been happening,” Young said Friday.

Young filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, asserting Iowa City is breaking state law by not telling parents about the rooms, which exist at 13 of 20 Iowa City elementary schools. The rooms, generally six-by-six feet and made of plywood, also are at South East Junior High, Northwest Junior High and City High.

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