Cedar Rapids schools coaching special education teachers under Justice Department settlement

With more than 60 special education jobs open in Cedar Rapids, special education director wants to retain staff

CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids school officials are focused on supporting their special education staff as the district implements changes agreed upon in a settlement last year with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The agreement, signed in September, required the Cedar Rapids Community School District to stop the use of seclusion in all school buildings and programs beginning Oct. 10, 2022. Seclusion rooms are used in many Iowa school districts as a last resort if students are at risk of harming themselves or others.

The agreement also required the district to make significant changes to limit the use of physical restraint and rethink how student behavior is analyzed and responded to.

There are almost 60 special education job openings in the district for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 school years, the majority of those being paraprofessionals, according to listings posted on Teach Iowa.

“We’ve tried to hire all year long and haven’t had applicants for those positions,” said Lisa Glenn, who is in her first year as executive director of special services for Cedar Rapids schools. Glenn previously worked for five years as special education director for the Iowa City Community School District.

Glenn said her biggest concern is supporting and coaching educators already in special education positions in the district to retain the staff they already have.

“People working in our buildings have hard jobs,” Glenn said. “We need to make sure people are feeling supported and coached … and have the tools they need to best serve our students.”

“Unless we can support them, they really are left hanging out there, which is not what we want,” she said Monday in an update to the school board about the settlement.

Over the last few months, the board has approved new policies required by the settlement. This includes a crisis intervention protocol specifying appropriate, proactive interactions, crisis prevention and de-escalation techniques should be used to prevent and, when necessary, respond to students experiencing behavioral challenges.

Monday, the school board approved additional policy revisions, including attendance permits for students who qualify for special education services and for student discipline and suspension. An in-district attendance permit is required for a student to attend a school within the district outside of his or her resident attendance area.

One of the key policy changes is working to prevent crisis instead of intervening during or after a crisis. “We would rather prevent a crisis from happening than respond to a crisis,” Glenn said.

If a crisis does occur, there are protocols for how to respond, including which staff are allowed and have received training to physically restrain a student if necessary.

“The high quality practices we’re building in our classrooms will benefit students with the most needs the most,” Glenn said.

School board member Dexter Merschbrock asked Glenn if a lower staff-to-student ratio would help prevent crisis.

“I think sometimes that could play a role,” Glenn said. In a classroom with more students, that could create a situation where a crisis is more likely to occur, but not always, she said.

An investigation in to the use of physical restraint and seclusion in Cedar Rapids schools by the Department of Justice began in October 2020. The investigation concluded that instead of meeting the needs of students with disabilities that affect their behavior, the school district subdued them through unnecessary restraints and improper confinement alone in small seclusion rooms, sometimes multiple times in one day and often for excessive periods of time. As a result of these practices, some students lost hundreds of hours of instructional time.

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