Education

Iowa City School District dismantles last student seclusion room

Better training and support arise partly from investigation

Pieces of a wall that were used to make a seclusion room in the functional skills suite sit in the hallway Wednesday after being dismantled at Iowa City High School. The district of more than 14,000 students still will use conference rooms and small classrooms for seclusion as a last resort to calm students who may be a danger to others or themselves. But officials have made major changes, including improving staff training, switching to electronic reports and implementing a new clinical psychiatry approach for high school students. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Pieces of a wall that were used to make a seclusion room in the functional skills suite sit in the hallway Wednesday after being dismantled at Iowa City High School. The district of more than 14,000 students still will use conference rooms and small classrooms for seclusion as a last resort to calm students who may be a danger to others or themselves. But officials have made major changes, including improving staff training, switching to electronic reports and implementing a new clinical psychiatry approach for high school students. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — The Iowa City Community School District dismantled its last student seclusion room Wednesday, getting rid of the 6-by-6 foot boxes that have sparked outrage from some parents.

But what’s next?

Disagreement with a classmate, an F on a test or chiding from a teacher can spark anger, frustration or other negative emotions that in turn can snowball into violence. The district of more than 14,000 students still will use conference rooms and small classrooms for seclusion as a last resort to calm students who may be a danger to others or themselves.

But school officials have made major changes, including improving staff training, switching to electronic reports and implementing a new clinical psychiatry approach for high school students. The goal is to reduce the need for seclusion and restraint starting in the 2018-2019 school year.

“Restraint and seclusion is what happens when prevention services were not successful on that day,” said Lisa Glenn, who has been Iowa City’s special education director for about a year. “We’re trying to bring those clinical practices into our schools. It’s not a one size fits all.”

Statewide concerns

Many of Iowa’s largest school districts have faced scrutiny over student seclusion practices and reporting.

U.S. Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley in May asked the federal Education Department’s Office of Inspector General to investigate misreporting of seclusion and restraint used in public schools, citing the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s underreporting of seclusion incidents from 2012 through 2016.

Coralville lawyer Mary Richard filed state complaints in June against 13 other Iowa school districts, including Waterloo, Muscatine and West Des Moines, questioning their use of seclusion and restraint, particularly for special education students.

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Some of the changes in Iowa City are part of a corrective action plan submitted to the Iowa Department of Education after a 2016 complaint sparked an investigation.

The state probe found the majority of Iowa City seclusions from Dec. 22, 2015, to Dec. 21, 2016, met state standards. But 18 reports showed students placed in seclusion for reasons not allowed by law, 30 reports had information missing and three reports showed children put in seclusion for more than 50 minutes without getting permission from a parent or administrator.

To resolve the state complaint, the Iowa City district agreed to provide more training, switch from paper to electronic seclusion and restraint reports and call Individualized Education Program meetings for all students who had been restrained 10 or more times during the yearlong review period.

The state closed the investigation in April, noting the district had completed its correction actions. Students and parents should see the full implementation of those changes when school starts this month.

Reporting seclusion and restraint

Chapter 103 of Iowa’s Administrative Rules requires any time a student is restrained, whether with an approved physical hold or in a room, staff must complete a report documenting what led to the incident, how long restraint or seclusion lasted and who was involved, among other information. Parents also must be notified.

Even though Iowa City has abolished the wooden cubicles once used for seclusion, staff still will complete a report anytime a student is kept in a conference room, office — even on the playground — against his or her will, Glenn said.

“Seclusion is anytime we prevent egress, so it’s not necessarily a designated place,” she said. “I want people to err on the side of reporting anytime we’re preventing egress.”

The district’s new electronic reports make it easier for administrators to identify patterns and fix situations that might be leading to seclusion or restraint.

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Plus, in the past “some of the reports were incomplete,” Glenn said. “This is a form you can’t do incompletely because a response is required.”

Improved training

The Iowa City school district switched from the Crisis Prevention Institute training for seclusion and restraint to a new program called Safety Care, which provides more thorough training, Glenn said.

“Each participant has to demonstrate verbal de-escalation as well as physical skills one by one in front of a group,” she said. “There’s also a physical requirement. Each person has to be able to get down on each knee and back up. This gives us a better idea who is readily available to help in a situation.”

Safety Care also provides for 30 trainers across the district — compared with just six before — which means nearly every school in the district will have its own trainer on staff, Glenn said.

The training contract costs the district $57,750 this year.

PBIS, or positive behavior intervention and supports, is an acronym many Iowa City students associate with “tickets” teachers and staff give students for good behavior. Accumulated tickets might result in a prize or a fun activity. The program focuses on teaching students what is expected of them and reinforcing appropriate behavior rather than focusing on discipline.

PBIS has been in option at Iowa City schools for many years, but starting in 2018-2019 it will be mandatory for elementaries and junior highs.

Dina Bishara, an Iowa City parent and co-founder of the Iowa City Autism Community, said she’s glad to see better training for staff, but she also wants the district to keep in mind the mental health issues that may lead to behavioral problems.

“Safety Care sounds great and an improvement over trainings past, but it is not a replacement for mental health-informed approaches that honor the complexity and depth of students with behavioral issues and truly work to understand and address the underlying issues many of our children struggle with,” Bishara said.

New therapy option

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On that front, the Iowa City district is expanding use of dialectical behavior therapy, which helps students learn to cope with painful emotions and lessen conflict in their relationships with teachers or peers.

University of Iowa clinical social worker James Burkhalter led a pilot project last year helping 12 Iowa City West students use the four key skills: mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation and interpersonal effectiveness.

“Embracing an emotion can take the power away from it,” Burkhalter said. “Notice it, invite it in, let it go down rather than react.”

Students learn coping strategies, such as distraction and pace breathing. They also learn to foster healthy relationships that help them reach their goals, Burkhalter said.

“We only have anecdotal evidence so far, but comments from kids, parents and teachers are they learned to be more effective in managing their emotions,” he said. Burkhalter and his team will follow up with the pilot study participants to see if their grades, attendance and discipline reports improve after the behavioral training.

Starting this fall, the Iowa City school district will make dialectical behavior therapy available to students at all four district high schools.

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

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