Iowa City schools must fix use of seclusion, state says

Education Department report responds to December complaint

A seclusion room at Horn Elementary School in Iowa City on Thursday, May 19, 2016. (Gazette file photo)
A seclusion room at Horn Elementary School in Iowa City on Thursday, May 19, 2016. (Gazette file photo)

IOWA CITY — Although the “vast majority” of its school seclusion incidents were handled properly, the Iowa City school district violated federal law in some cases and must make changes.

These are the findings of an Iowa Department of Education review of the district’s use of seclusion, a practice of temporarily isolating agitated students at risk of harming themselves or others. The 35-page report was issued last week in response to a Dec. 21 complaint by Iowa City lawyer Mary Richard.

Richard asserted the district’s use of seclusion rooms violated the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act because many parents don’t know about the small enclosures and the rooms were being used more broadly than intended.

Thomas Mayes, a state Education Department 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 states.

The report showed 18 children 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.

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 getting 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.

Mayes did not affirm Richard’s complaints about size and location of the seclusion rooms or the recycled rubber used to pad the interior walls. He found these aspects of the rooms to be in compliance with state law.

Richard originally asserted black students were disproportionately put in the seclusion rooms in 2013-14, but dropped that part of her complaint in January.

Seclusion rooms are used as a last resort in school districts across the state and the country for children with mental illness, developmental disabilities or trauma that may cause them to act out violently. Several metro Iowa districts are trying to reduce use of these rooms in favor of other strategies.

The Iowa City school district said Tuesday officials would review the report as it relates to a previous state correction action plan about special education.

“Next steps will involve identifying specific actions to address the findings in Mr. Mayes’ report,” Spokeswoman Kristin Pedersen said. “While many of the concerns have already been addressed, the District will continue to develop and implement systemic changes that positively impact the learning environment for all students.”

The report comes a week before an Iowa City task force is scheduled to make recommendations to the school board about use of seclusion in the district of about 14,000 students.


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Two school board members said last fall they wanted to abolish the tiny, padded rooms after complaints from parents and a Gazette investigation showing a handful of incidents in which student behavior documented by educators didn’t seem to warrant seclusion.

But Mayes said getting rid of seclusion may lead to worse problems.

“I have considered the unintended consequences of a broad ban on seclusion,” Mayes wrote. “These would appear to be increased staff injuries, increased student injuries, increased referrals to law enforcement, increased placement in out-of-district settings and increased suspension and expulsion.”

Rather, the school district should focus on developing a “system of prevention and support where seclusion is not the first and only option.”

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