116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
When Cael Rudkin was in first grade at West Marshall Elementary School he got stuck outside one day because none of the school's doors had handicap accessible push buttons.
Cael uses an electric wheelchair and this was the only way for him to get the door open. It was raining.
To even enter the building in State Center, Marshall County, Cael had to go around to the back door because the front door had a step.
Cael, now 14 and from the town of Rhodes, has dealt with many accessibility issues in his time attending school in the West Marshall Community School District.
So have others. The majority of Iowa school districts reviewed by the Iowa Department of Education do not meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards, an IowaWatch investigation revealed.
Since 2010, the Iowa Department of Education has inspected 48 school districts in the districts' annual equity review. Districts are inspected are done annually and voluntarily, according to Staci Hupp, Education Department communications chief:
l Based on the Educational Equity Review Targeting Plan worked out with the U.S. Education Department based on demographics, enrollment trends and other data
l If any complaints have been received about a specific district
l If any issues were noticed during a previous inspection.
In the most recent inspections, all but one had areas of non-compliance with the ADA. The categories with the most areas of non-compliance were parking, including passenger loading zones, entrances and toilet rooms.
The examples include not having enough van-accessible parking spots, not having a curb-cut or direct accessible route to the front of a building, not having wide enough wheelchair accessible bathroom stalls, and not having appropriate signs to indicate accessible parking spots, entrances, and bathrooms.
'It is important for the schools to be compliant so that parents can feel comfortable when they send their children to school,' Cael's mother, Joey Rudkin, said.
'So many people take for granted that they can open a door or fit inside a bathroom stall, but until you are a person or have a family member who needs these things you truly can't understand. They are important for normal life, not special treatment.'
The original ADA of 1990 prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in employment, local and governmental services, transportation, commercial facilities and public accommodations. In 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder signed updates to the ADA regulations, including the implementation of ADA Standards for Accessible Design.
Changes from the 1990 to the 2010 standards include wider parking spaces for wheelchair-accessible vans, landing spaces at the tops of curb ramps and many new statutes for assistive-listening systems.
CLEAR CREEK AMANA
The only school district in Iowa without non-compliance issues was Clear Creek Amana, an IowaWatch investigation of the 48-school-district reports showed. Tim Kuehl, the district's superintendent, said that this is most likely because most of the buildings in the district were built recently.
'Even our older buildings are one level, and accessibility isn't an issue,' he said.
The high school that was inspected, built in 2009, has two levels. The middle-school annex, built in 1968, had one level for the inspection but since has added a second level.
Only the high school and middle school were inspected. The other Clear Creek Amana Community School District buildings were not inspected because the district's equity review took place in 2013, after the Iowa Education Department decided to focus inspections only on facilities that offer career and technical education programs, such as high schools and administrative buildings.
'In the past, our department opted to include elementary and middle-school buildings in our reviews,' the Education Department's Hupp said. 'However, in the absence of unlimited resources, we have adjusted our review schedule to better reflect our funding and staffing levels, which align with the federal requirements.'
Since this switch, elementary and middle schools have been overlooked in reviews.
Data on whether or not a school is compliant with the ADA are taken from equity reports, which are done annually and voluntarily by school districts based on scores on the Educational Equity Review Targeting Plan.
The higher the score a school district receives generally the likelier it is that it will be selected that year for an equity review. A score is based on enrollment patterns:
l For gender, racial background and disability
l Whether or not the percent of minority students enrolled over the past five years has changed
l Any complaints the district may have received
l Time elapsed since the district's last on-site equity review.
Since 2010, an average of eight school districts have been reviewed each year.
As a part of these equity reviews, certain school district facilities are inspected to determine if they are compliant with the ADA, as required by the federal Office for Civil Rights.
For all other district buildings, the superintendent signs a yearly assurance that they are up to code with the ADA. School administrators inspect the buildings, not an independent agency.
Signing off on such an assurance means that school administrators understand that the Iowa Department of Education may follow up at any time. However, the department only follows up on these assurances if they receive a complaint that something is non-compliant with the ADA.
The education department sends a Letter of Finding with the results to school districts undergoing an equity review. Districts have 45 calendar days to return a compliance plan, which must describe the area of non-compliance, the remedies to correct the non-compliance, the evidence needed to verify the remedy, the staff member responsible in overseeing the correction, and a timeline for completion. Hupp said the Iowa Department of Education makes on-site visits to monitor progress until the areas of non-compliance are fixed.
Cael Rudkin's elementary school did not have an elevator. While the school accommodated Cael by moving all of his classrooms to the first level, he still was not able to access all of the school as his able-bodied peers could.
Once, his aide at that time was carrying Cael up the stairs to the second level of the building and tripped. Cael bumped his head on a step and was taken to the nurse's office.
'I guess they probably should have had the elevator,' Cael said. 'That way that wouldn't have happened.'
The Rudkins and Nicole Kooiker, the West Marshall Community School District superintendent, agreed that schools need to be made fully compliant with the ADA and sometimes even go beyond that in making sure things are accessible for everyone. That way, it benefits not just students and staff with disabilities, but also any elderly relatives who may be visiting the school for events or any visitors that may have unique needs.
'It's not just me, it's a public area,' Cael said.
OLD BUILDINGS IN NON-COMPLIANCE
According to the '2010 Standards for Accessible Design' published by the U.S. Department of Justice on Sept. 15, 2010, any construction or alteration that occurred on or after March 15, 2010, must comply with the 2010 Standards. Before that date, construction or alteration only had to comply with the 1991 Standards.
An alteration is defined in this document as 'a change to a place of public accommodation or a commercial facility that affects or could affect the usability of the building or facility or any part thereof.' When an alteration is done to one part of a building, the altered portion of the building must also be made 'readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.' This applies to all alterations that occurred on or after Jan. 26, 1992.
A clause in the accessible design standards specifies that making a facility readily accessible always must be to the maximum extent feasible, meaning that unless 'the nature of an existing facility makes it virtually impossible to comply fully with applicable accessibility standards,' all things must be done to comply with the designated standards.
Administrators at Des Moines Public Schools are familiar with making alterations to the district's buildings, as the average age of the district's 72 facilities is 60 years old, district Chief Operations Officer Bill Good said.
'Our buildings weren't built for accessibility,' Good said. The Des Moines school district had 136 areas of ADA non-compliance in a 2011 equity review.
However, each new alteration done on a Des Moines district building has included making it more accessible to be in compliance with the ADA. This summer the district plans to add an elevator while renovating Howe Elementary School.
To date, accessibility to Howe Elementary's second level has been handled in the same way that Cael Rudkin's elementary school handled it.
'Let's say we have a fourth-grade teacher that's on the second floor that's disabled,' Good said. 'Up until the improvements here, we could establish that fourth grade classroom on the main level and have it accessible. Now, after we get this work done, it could be on either floor.'
Good said only two buildings in the school district do not have elevators.
ACCESSIBILITY IS PERSONAL
Cael Rudkin will go to high school this coming fall. The main accessibility issue there will be having a handicap accessible bathroom. While West Marshall High School has handicap accessible stalls that are ADA compliant for size, this doesn't work for Cael for various reasons.
One option the school came up with was having Cael use the nurse's office when he needed to use the bathroom. The thought was he could use a commode in the nurse's office and then someone from the school could take the commode to the nearest bathroom to empty it.
'That's not OK,' Joey Rudkin said. 'It's a dignity issue.'
On top of this, Cael's aide next school year is a female who cannot help him in the men's bathroom, or take him to the women's bathroom.
Also, Cael also has toileting chair that slides over a standard toilet set and a Hoyer lift, a bulky piece of equipment with a sling used to transfer people out of wheelchairs. This equipment would not fit in a normal sized handicap accessible stall.
'We currently have handicap accessible restrooms, but sometimes even with handicap accessible restrooms, some students have other particular needs that we need to be aware of,' Kooiker, West Marshall superintendent for three years, said.
Kooiker said she understands that a more handicap-accessible bathroom is a necessity for the school district, even if it may mean a bigger dip in its facilities budget than originally planned.
'There are things that are obviously more expensive than others, but you do some problem solving and some brainstorming and you realign your facilities money to meet the needs of every student and their family,' she said.
West Marshall Community School District received an equity review in March 2013 and had seven areas of ADA non-compliance in its high school. The middle school and elementary school were not part of this review because it took place after the Iowa Department of Education decided to focus only on buildings that offer career and technical education programs.
This story was produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a non-profit, online news website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.