116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY - The Iowa City school district is getting rid of closet-like student seclusion rooms that have been lightning rods for criticism from parents and school board members.
However, the district of 14,200 students will maintain its practice of restraining or isolating agitated students in danger of harming themselves or others.
Staff instead will use offices, conference rooms or empty classrooms to separate such students from their peers, Superintendent Stephen Murley said Wednesday.
'We're not ending the use of restraint and seclusion,” Murley said. 'That's a part of public education.”
In an email sent Tuesday night to parents, Murley said the district has taken down seven seclusion rooms since June and would remove all temporary structures by the start of the 2018-2019 school year. Permanent rooms used for seclusion in other schools will be used for other purposes, Murley said.
The district still has 16 seclusion rooms in use in 13 schools, including elementary schools Alexander, Hills, Hoover (both old and new), Horn, Lucas, Penn, Twain, Weber and Wood as well as Northwest Junior High and City High School.
While such rooms - which are used in many other Iowa districts - are intended to temporarily isolate aggravated students to keep them from harming others or themselves, a September 2016 Gazette investigation also found instances where the rooms were used simply to punish bad behavior.
A state probe in June found that while the Iowa City district handled most of 455 reviewed seclusion incidents properly, 18 reports showed students placed in seclusion for minor infractions that weren't a safety risk, 30 reports had missing information and three reports showed kids were put in seclusion for more than 50 minutes without getting permission from a parent or administrator.
This investigation and a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights caused Iowa City district officials to evaluate how they were using seclusion rooms, Murley said.
Some special education students have seclusion written into their Individualized Education Programs, Murley said. Seven schools with temporary seclusion rooms added at some point to meet the plans still had the rooms even after those students moved on or no longer had a need for seclusion, he said. Those rooms were immediately removed.
From now until the end of the school year, district officials will work with students, parents and teachers to revise students' individual plans so they do not require use of seclusion rooms, he said.
'Some of the first calls I got last night were from parents who were concerned about those spaces going away,” Murley said. 'I gave them reassurances we will work with them to make sure their kids are safe.”
Federal law entitles every student age 3 to 21 to a free, appropriate and local public education in a least restrictive environment.
Under state rules, if a student's actions in the school threaten harm, and attempts to defuse the behavior fail, staff are allowed to restrain a child and place him or her into seclusion.
The 6-by-6 foot plywood cubes Iowa City has been using for seclusion met state standards. But some parents were horrified by the small, empty spaces with padded walls, a small window and door. Iowa City school board member Phil Hemingway equated the rooms with 'medieval torture” last fall and recommended they be abolished.
The ACLU of Iowa and six Iowa lawyers filed a petition in June asking the Iowa Department of Education to revise part of the Iowa Administrative Code so seclusion rooms are used only in emergencies 'when a child's behavior poses an immediate threat of serious bodily injury to the child or others” - and not as discipline. The state has until Nov. 27 to respond to the complaint.
ACLU spokeswoman Veronica Fowler said Wednesday she was glad to see the Iowa City school district remove seclusion rooms. 'A reduced use of seclusion we welcome,” she said. 'What we want to get to is not using seclusion for discipline.”
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