Iowa City Schools' task force recommends keeping seclusion rooms for discipline

One school board member questions whether the 'little dungeons' are needed

The seclusion room which can be used to defuse disruptive or dangerous behavior from special education students is shown
The seclusion room which can be used to defuse disruptive or dangerous behavior from special education students is shown at Horn Elementary School in Iowa City on Thursday, May 19, 2016.(file photo)

IOWA CITY — Seclusion rooms should continue to be used as a disciplinary tactic in the Iowa City Community School District, though sparingly, a task force recommended Tuesday.

In a report presented to the school board during its evening meeting, all but two of the 22 task force members agreed putting students in one of the district’s 21 seclusion rooms — small enclosures that exist in 16 of the district’s schools — is an acceptable and sometimes necessary way to respond to students who are “out of control.”

“I don’t know that the obliteration of these, to reduce these down to zero, is realistic,” said Sean Casey, a state of Iowa behavior consultant and a member of the task force.

The task force has been reviewing the school district’s use of seclusion rooms since January. It was formed after a Gazette review of records in September found that while the seclusion rooms were typically used to prevent aggravated children from harming others or themselves, they were also sometimes used as a punishment for non-violent acts.

While the Tuesday recommendation does not call for the elimination of the seclusion rooms, the group was unanimous in wanting to decrease their use, interim Special Education Director Jane Fry said.

“We need a very purposeful plan in order to move things forward,” Fry said. “ ... Our goal then is to significantly reduce our use of seclusion rooms and the number of minutes that a child would need to be in that particular environment.”

To move toward that goal, the report recommended referring to the rooms only as “seclusion rooms” rather than “timeout rooms,” removing any seclusion rooms that are no longer in use and to develop further plans — to train staff, develop procedures and research evidence-based alternatives to seclusions — with the district’s incoming special education director, Lisa Glenn.


But some board members questioned if the rooms are necessary. Many other school districts do not have them, board member Phil Hemingway said, and some Iowa City schools get by without them.

“It’s hard to understand why we need to lock up a 4- or 5-year-old in a 6-by-6 cell because we can’t calm them down,” Hemingway said.

“These are little dungeons we have in the classroom,” board member Chris Liebig added. “I understand there’s a rationale you can build for them, but to me it’s just not right. ... It can’t look and feel the way that these do.”

But task force member Mary Roberts, who works as the Autism Center Coordinator at University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, said children with severe behavioral problems need to be secluded in certain circumstances.

“No one that I know of is pro-seclusion and restraint,” said Roberts, who has two adult children who she said are profoundly autistic. “Unfortunately, it’s a necessary tool for kids like mine.”

The board scheduled a work session in August in order to develop a policy around the use of seclusion rooms.

“As a policymaking board, we can create policy about the use of these rooms,” board member LaTasha DeLoach said. “And we don’t have a policy. We have the Iowa Code, but we don’t have our own Iowa City schools policy.”

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