Education

Senators ask federal probe of school seclusion reporting

State committee poised to recommend changes to Iowa rules

A seclusion room, which can be used to defuse disruptive or dangerous behavior from students, is shown in a 2016 photo at Horn Elementary School in Iowa City. The Iowa City school district plans to remove all seclusion rooms by the start of the 2018-19 academic year. (The Gazette)
A seclusion room, which can be used to defuse disruptive or dangerous behavior from students, is shown in a 2016 photo at Horn Elementary School in Iowa City. The Iowa City school district plans to remove all seclusion rooms by the start of the 2018-19 academic year. (The Gazette)
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U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley have asked the federal Education Department’s Office of Inspector General to investigate misreporting of seclusion and restraint used in public schools, citing the Cedar Rapids school district’s underreporting of seclusion incidents from 2012 through 2016.

School districts across the country use seclusion and restraint to keep agitated students from harming themselves or others.

But the practices are little-known to the parents whose kids haven’t been held in small rooms or put in restraining holds — partly because no one likes to think about it.

But accurate reporting is critical to making sure seclusion and restraint are used properly and as little as possible, parents and special education advocates have said.

“Given the impact of such matters on children in the classroom, and in particular, children with disabilities, we request that OIG performs its own investigation of erroneous reporting of restraint and seclusion, as this appears to be a systemic problem,” according to the May 17 letter from the Iowa Republican senators to Inspector General Kathleen Tighe.

The letter notes the Cedar Rapids district’s own records show 1,400 incidents of seclusion and restraint in 2012-2013 and 2013-2014, but its report to the U.S. Department of Education for those years showed no incidents. The senators said the district also underreported seclusion and restraint in 2014-2015 and 2015-2016.

Districts in Virginia, California and other states also have failed to provide federal officials with accurate seclusion and restraint numbers, according to a November Politico story cited by Ernst and Grassley.

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Only about 12 percent of public schools reported any use of restraints on special education students in the most recent two-year survey from the Education Department, Politico reported. Among districts that reported no use of seclusion or restraints were New York and Chicago public schools, according to the news outlet.

Ernst spokeswoman Leigh Claffey said the Inspector General’s Office plans to consider a probe of “reporting and data quality” related to school seclusion and restraint nationwide.

Meanwhile, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating underreporting in Cedar Rapids after a request last fall by Iowa’s senators, the letter states.

More than 11,000 Iowa incidents reported

The 100 Iowa school districts that reported using seclusion in 2015-2016 did so more than 11,000 times combined that school year, according to data districts reported to the U.S. Education Department. The Des Moines school district had the largest number of incidents at 3,051, but Council Bluffs, with 1,106 incidents, had the highest rate in the state with 121 incidents per 1,000 students in the district.

Iowa City reported 786 seclusion incidents in 2015-2016, which was 58 per 1,000 students, and Cedar Rapids reported 612 incidents, or 37 per 1,000 students.

Coralville lawyer Mary Richard compiled the data because of concerns Iowa schools may be using seclusion and restraint for circumstances not allowed by Iowa law.

Richard was among several lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa that filed a petition last summer asking the state Education Department to change Chapter 103 of Iowa’s Administrative Rules so seclusion is used only in emergencies, when a child’s behavior poses an “immediate threat of serious bodily injury to the child or others.”

“I am quite concerned to find out seclusion is used for discipline in our state,” Richard told The Gazette.

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The department formed a work group that plans to make recommendations in August to state Education Director Ryan Wise. If Wise accepts the proposed changes, they would go before the Iowa State Board of Education for review, department spokesman Jim Flansburg said.

Changes in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City

The Gazette reported last summer that staff at Pierce Elementary in Cedar Rapids confined a third-grade girl in an unauthorized seclusion room — not for violent behavior, but because the girl wouldn’t stop crying.

The district investigated the April 5, 2017, incident and determined Pierce staff violated state seclusion rules by holding the child in an unauthorized room without a window for behavior that “was not physically aggressive or otherwise posing a danger to herself or others.”

The room no longer is used for seclusion.

A district committee reviewing seclusion and restraint practices on Feb. 26 recommended to the school board and Superintendent Brad Buck changes that would include setting annual goals for decreasing incidents, performing quarterly audits, providing de-escalation training for all employees who work with children and examining use of an electronic documentation form to ease reporting.

“The recommendations are supported by the Board and Dr. Buck expects full implementation of the recommendations,” district spokeswoman Akwi Nji said last week.

The district has been trying to correct past federal reports as part of the civil rights investigation, she said.

“Upon learning of the data reporting concern for the 2013-2014 school year last fall, the district worked with legal counsel to reach out to OCR for information on how to correct the data from the 2013-2014 report,” Nji said.

The Iowa City school district announced in November it would remove all seclusion boxes from the district by the start of the 2018-2019 school year in August.

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This was after a complaint by Richard and a 2016 Gazette investigation showing two incidents in the first month of the 2015-2016 school year in which students were placed in seclusion for non-violent behaviors of pouting and stepping out of line at recess. Most reports showed students placed in seclusion had exhibited aggressive behaviors, such as kicking, hitting or biting.

Although the district plans to remove all seclusion rooms, the act of isolating students for safety will continue in offices, conference rooms or empty classrooms, Iowa City Superintendent Stephen Murley said in November.

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

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