Education

State approves new rules for school seclusion and restraint

Changes happen after complaints about Cedar Rapids and Iowa City students being secluded for minor infractions

The seclusion room at Arthur Elementary has padded walls, a window in the door and a door that is unlockable from outsid
The seclusion room at Arthur Elementary has padded walls, a window in the door and a door that is unlockable from outside. Photographed in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

The State Board of Education approved new rules Wednesday for secluding and restraining school students, marking a compromise between civil liberty advocates and teachers.

The ACLU of Iowa, which filed a complaint in 2017 after reports showed some students had been secluded for only minor infractions, applauded the new rules.

“We’re relieved to see these changes in the final proposed rules, which are an essential and hard-fought improvement in the protections for countless Iowa students and their families,” Mark Stringer, the group’s executive director, said in a public comment period before the unanimous vote.

Margaret Buckton, legislative analyst for the Urban Education Network, said educators didn’t get everything they wanted with the revision, but “this is a good step for students and putting student safety first.”

The new Chapter 103, which would go into effect Jan. 20, says seclusion may be used to prevent “an imminent threat of bodily injury,” to prevent serious property damage or when a student’s actions threaten to disrupt the learning environment.

The ACLU and family advocates had argued for narrower uses, such as when there is a threat of “serious injury.” But department staff removed the word “serious” when educators said it was too hard to make split-second decisions about whether a student’s behavior was likely to cause serious injury.

Another sticking point was how big seclusion rooms need to be and how long districts would have to get their rooms up to code. A standard of 49 square feet in a previous draft was replaced with 56 square feet (and no less than 7 feet across) and now districts have five years to comply.

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In an earlier draft, schools were given just 10 minutes to alert parents their child had been secluded or restrained. The new rules allow an hour or by the end of the school day, whichever comes first.

The Iowa Department of Education held a public hearing Sept. 15 and collected written comments on the new rules. Most of the suggestions were rejected, but the department did make changes to require schools to keep more documentation.

Board members said Wednesday they appreciate the compromise groups made to write the new rules and hope teacher training will ensure the rules are followed. President Brooke Axiotis said she wants teachers to be mindful of the disparities in school seclusion and restraint.

According to U.S. Department of Education statistics from 2015-2016, students with disabilities made up 12 percent of enrolled students but 66 percent of the students who are secluded and 71 percent of the students restrained, Stringer said. Black students made up 15 percent of all students but 23 percent of the students secluded and 27 percent of the students restrained.

“I would hope that’s a thought that enters a teacher’s mind before they go and do it,” Axiotis said.

The process to adopt new rules started with the June 2017 lawsuit by the ACLU and six other plaintiffs.

A 2016 Gazette investigation found elementary students were occasionally put into seclusion for non-violent acts, including refusing to trace in pencil, stepping out of line at recess and pouting. A state investigation in 2017 confirmed the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City school districts did seclude some elementary students for minor infractions.

The Gazette reported in July 2017 about a student at Pierce Elementary in Cedar Rapids being held in an unapproved seclusion room not for being physically aggressive but because she couldn’t stop crying.

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Many Eastern Iowa schools still are using seclusion — Cedar Rapids elementary students were held in seclusion rooms or restrained 237 times in the first month of the 2019-2020 school year, for instance.

The Cedar Rapids and Iowa City school districts refused last year to provide documentation about why students were secluded. The districts would not provide incident reports, saying they would identify students, even though The Gazette asked for that information to be blacked out.

The Iowa City district dismantled the last of its closet-like, free-standing seclusion rooms in 2018, but still allows seclusion in conference rooms or other approved places.

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

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