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Iowa schools would get 5 years to enlarge seclusion rooms

State Board of Education will consider new rules next week

The seclusion room at Arthur Elementary in Cedar Rapids has padded walls, a window in the door and a door that is unlockable from outside. The State Board of Education will consider new rules next week governing the use of the rooms in Iowa schools. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
The seclusion room at Arthur Elementary in Cedar Rapids has padded walls, a window in the door and a door that is unlockable from outside. The State Board of Education will consider new rules next week governing the use of the rooms in Iowa schools. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Iowa schools would get five years to enlarge seclusion rooms to meet a state standard of at least a 7-foot square, according to a proposal to be considered by the State Board of Education next week.

The size of seclusion rooms was a sticking point for proposed changes to Iowa’s Administrative Code Chapter 103, which governs how educators use seclusion and restraint with students whose actions threaten harm to themselves or others.

In the Cedar Rapids school district, for example, none of the seclusion rooms now used is larger than 6-by-6 feet.

The Urban Education Network — which includes Cedar Rapids — argued districts should get more time to enlarge rooms as part of planned renovations.

If the new rules are adopted, schools would have up to five years to meet the 7-by-7 foot standard — viewed as necessary so taller kids can’t climb the walls.

The Education Board in August voted down a previous draft, which board members felt was too burdensome for school employees. The Iowa Department of Education has since had six meetings around the state to collect public comments to draft a new set of rules.

If the board supports this new version next week, the state will file a notice of intended action that would start a 108-day public comment period. The board could vote on a final revision next spring.

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Family advocates who served on the original work group revising Chapter 103 last year were adamant seclusion and restraint be used only in cases where students pose a risk of serious injury to themselves or others so that this “last resort” intervention isn’t overused.

But educators wanted to remove the word “serious,” saying it was too hard for teachers to make a split-second decision about whether a student’s behavior was likely to cause serious injury.

The Education Department replaced the word “serious” with “bodily” injury in the new draft.

The new version also relaxes the amount of time educators have to alert parents their child has been placed in seclusion or restraint. A previous draft said 10 minutes.

The new draft says as “soon as practicable after the situation is under control, but no later than one hour or the end of the school day, whichever occurs first.”

The changes in seclusion and restraint rules follow a June 2017 lawsuit by the ACLU of Iowa and six other lawyers. A state investigation in 2017 showed the Iowa City school district did not handle some seclusion incidents properly, secluding elementary school students for minor infractions, including stepping out of line, having “attitude” or using foul language.

The Gazette reported in July 2017 about a Pierce Elementary student being held in an unapproved seclusion room not for being physically aggressive but because she couldn’t stop crying.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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