116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Ben was “having the worst time of his entire life” during the COVID-19 pandemic, his mother said during an Iowa City school board work session Tuesday.
He was injuring himself and others and knocking holes in the wall at home.
“He needed so much help, and the school district stepped up like you wouldn’t believe,” said his mother, Jamee, who asked that her last name not be used. “We were at our wits’ end. He hurt himself so badly he almost gave himself a concussion. I had to take him to the ER. We had to protect Ben from himself.”
Ben, 17, is a student in the special education program at Liberty High School in the Iowa City Community School District. His mother told the school board about his progress as board members were discussing the use of seclusion rooms and restraints.
In the fall of 2020, Ben’s Individualized Education Plan -- which outlines instruction and services for students with disabilities -- was reevaluated. Ben’s family members and teachers were interviewed, and a team with expertise in academics, communication, autism and behavior created a new plan for Ben.
Ben went from having six incidents of seclusion and restraint in December 2020 and nine in January to none in March, two in April and none in May and June.
“Restraint has such bad connotations,” Jamee said. “If they restrained him, it was because he was going to do harm to himself or others. There are so many people making sure he is not injured.
“It’s a tough word to hear, but that’s not how I hear it. I hear, ‘Thank god, he didn’t hit his head on the floor again.’ ”
During the 2018-19 school year, the Iowa City district reported 1,400 instances of seclusion and restraint.
In the 2020-21 school year, that number was down to 27 instances of seclusion and 69 cases of restraints.
School leaders attribute the decrease ito rethinking Individualized Education Plans like Ben’s.
“It’s a success story, but you don’t just see the numbers move from hundreds to 69 without that process -- a change in behavior and response from the staff to illicit a change in behavior and response from the student,” Superintendent Matt Degner said.
Special Education Director Lisa Glenn said the goal for every student is to reduce the number of seclusion and restraint incidences to zero.
“We are not going to tell any students their needs are too great,” Glenn said. “It’s up to us to harness our resources, get our teams around it, and figure out the solutions.
“We will employ protective measures to ensure the safety of everyone,” Glenn continued. “We’re not going to let Ben crack his head open. That would be completely unacceptable. If our plan was to continue to restrain Ben over and over again, that would also be unacceptable.”
School board member Ruthina Malone said seeing these changes in the special education program gives her hope.
“I grew up in a family with a brother with autism and schizophrenia,” Malone said. “If he had interventions like what Ben has been given, I think he would have had a different life story.
“We have to keep putting in the work, so we can see more families celebrate successes that impact their life after they leave us,” Malone said.
An equity advisory committee made a recommendation in May to include benchmarks to reduce incidences of seclusion and restraint in the district’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Plan.
About 9 percent of the students in the Iowa City district are in special education. About 49 percent of the students placed in seclution were Black, according to data from 2017, the most recent data available from the Civil Rights Data Collection.
Dina Bishara, a parent in the district, said viewing seclusion and restraint as an equity issue is a newer idea.
“It’s one thing to talk about it, but if we’re going to be serious about reducing and eliminating seclusion and restraint, you have to have a plan and there have to be goals,” Bishara said.
Gail Brashers-Krug, a parent, said although she has had a positive experience with Iowa City’s special education program as a white woman, Black students in special education might not get the same kind of treatment.
“Their humanity is not presumed the way my kids’ humanity is,” Brashers-Krug said at a June school board meeting. “Instead, they’re viewed as dangerous, troublesome, aggressive and so on. This is what racism looks like in schools. … It’s unacceptable.“
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