116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Iowa City school officials say they follow state rules when sending children to seclusion rooms, intended to defuse disruptive or dangerous behavior.
This follows a parent's concerns about the rooms causing a lawmaker to question officials about policies and procedures surrounding seclusion and restraint of special education students.
'It's used as a last resort when a student is a safety risk to themselves or others,' said Carmen Dixon, special services director for the Iowa City school district.
Isolation is an extreme most schools try to avoid. Public and accredited private schools in Iowa are required to follow state administrative rules on restraints and physical confinement.
The Midwest Academy, a private boarding school in Keokuk, closed in January after state and federal officials raided the campus to seize documents and interview students, according to the Associated Press. Among concerns of investigators were allegations academy leaders put students in 'isolation boxes' for days at a time.
Questions arose in Iowa City when a district employee showed community members special education classrooms at Grant Wood Elementary School on March 30. Kat Litchfield, a University of Iowa graduate student and parent, was alarmed by timeout rooms.
'When I saw what was going on, I was shocked and disappointed,' Litchfield told The Gazette on Thursday. 'I had no awareness this was going on in our district. I think we can do better.'
Litchfield wrote an email to colleagues, one of whom forwarded it to Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City. Mascher, a former teacher, wrote to Iowa City Superintendent Stephen Murley to get more information.
Federal law entitles every student, from age 3 to 21, to a free, appropriate and local public education in a least restrictive environment.
Educators meet with each special education student's parents to create an 'Individualized Education Program' that might address program modifications, counseling, goals and special services.
Sometimes, a student's plan might call for seclusion if the student's actions threaten the safety of him or herself or others, and attempts to de-escalate the situation haven't worked.
'If we've followed the plan and they continue to escalate, we remove all materials, things they can throw,' Dixon said, citing a possible example. 'If they continue, you direct them to walk over to the timeout room.'
If the student doesn't go to time out voluntarily, Iowa City staff call in at least three employees trained to deal with crisis prevention and intervention to help escort the student, Dixon said. Any time a child is put in seclusion, the time, location and reason are among details recorded.
There is no minimum time a child must stay in seclusion. 'I would probably try to establish you were calm and get you out as soon as possible,' Dixon said.
Iowa City school employees call a student's parents if the time approaches 40 minutes, Dixon said. State rules require school personnel to get administrative approval to keep a child in seclusion longer than an hour.
The average amount of time a student spends in seclusion in the Cedar Rapids school district is between five and 15 minutes, said Sheila Lehman, executive director of special services.
'They're only used when a student is acting out very aggressively or physically,' Lehman said.
Iowa City has 18 timeout rooms in the 26-school district, but some schools have more than one room.
Quiet rooms are in nine Cedar Rapids schools: Hiawatha, Truman, Gibson, Harrison, Johnson, Garfield, Polk, Harding and Kennedy, Lehman said.
Iowa City's rooms are 6 feet by 6 feet, with light, ventilation and a comfortable temperature. The rooms are empty with padded walls and doors so students can't harm themselves. There's no lock on the door, but teachers can observe the students through a window.
Litchfield's letter also voiced concern about harnesses used to keep students seated on the bus. Dixon said those devices are used for children with physical disabilities that might keep them from sitting upright, such as lack of muscle tone.
They are not used for behavior modification, she said.