Iowa school officials must bring seclusion out of the closet

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With documented violations of rules governing seclusion rooms in two of the state’s largest school districts, it’s clear such inappropriate isolations aren’t isolated incidents.

In June, a state investigation found the Iowa City Community School District wrongly placed students — most of them elementary school-aged — into seclusion rooms for reasons inconsistent with the Iowa Administrative Code.

Last Sunday, The Gazette reported a third-grader at Pierce Elementary School in Cedar Rapids was inappropriately held in a windowless utility closet. School staff put her in the room and held the door shut because she would not stop crying.

A petition filed with the Iowa Department of Education by the ACLU of Iowa and six lawyers demands changes be made to ensure seclusion rooms are not used for discipline or punishment. We agree.

Extreme measures such as restraint or seclusion should be used only in emergencies, and only then if all other options for behavior modification have been tried and failed.

Twenty-nine states already have banned the use of seclusion and restraints as a form of discipline. Iowa should join their ranks, stating clearly that only children who are a physical danger to themselves or others will be restrained or isolated.

The state must provide clear guidance to all school districts on when, where and how long children can be secluded or restrained.

And, as the makeshift room at Pierce has made horribly clear, the state also must clearly define what qualifies as a “timeout” or seclusion room. Schools should be told what type of room can be used, how big it must be and what, if anything, it must contain.

Trust must be rebuilt with parents and other caregivers that if and when their child is restrained or secluded, notification will be provided.

We are disheartened by what we believe is a lax response from Cedar Rapids schools in the wake of the Pierce incident. From April 20, when the girl’s guardian filed a complaint with the state, to this past Monday, when district officials first alerted Pierce families, more than 70 days had passed. That’s unacceptable.

When rules intended to assure the safety of children are egregiously violated by school staff, all families deserve timely notification.

If seclusion must be part of our schools, clear rules must be established.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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