The state is proposing new rules for school seclusion and restraint, limiting the cases in which these “last resort” practices may be used and involving parents more in the process.
“The proposed rules make it crystal clear that schools should never use seclusion as a punishment or disciplinary measure — whether it is called a ‘timeout’ or ‘seclusion,’” said Dina Bishara, an Iowa City parent and member of the Iowa City Autism Community organization. “Seclusion and restraint are to be emergency procedures when all else fails.”
Major changes in the proposed revisions to Chapter 103 of Iowa Administrative Code would:
l Require seclusion rooms be permanent structures at least 7 feet across, not “free-standing cells” like those previously used in some Iowa school districts.
l Prohibit seclusion and restraint except when there is “imminent threat of serious physical injury” or “serious damage to property of significant” value. Rules now have lower thresholds.
l Require school staff to get permission from an administrator, and to alert parents, every 30 minutes of seclusion or restraint.
l Hold a debriefing with parents and school employees within five days of each incident.
There will be a hearing on the proposed rules March 5 in Des Moines.
Bishara, who has an elementary-age son with autism, said she particularly appreciates the proposal’s requirement that when a student has been restrained or put in seclusion multiple times, the school must convene a meeting to figure out what changes or supports might be needed.
A mental health expert could be part of those — which hasn’t always been the case in Iowa schools, she said.
“Historically, in this district and, it appears in others, students who have disabilities have not been receiving mental health services and supports they may need,” she said.
A 2016 Gazette investigation of seclusion incidents in the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids school districts showed these rooms usually were used as intended — to keep agitated students from harming themselves or others. But The Gazette found reported incidents in which kids were put into the rooms for non-violent acts, such as refusing to trace in pencil, stepping out of line at recess and pouting.
Many of those incidents were confirmed by a 2017 state investigation.
The Gazette reported in July 2017 that a 9-year-old girl was held at times in an unauthorized seclusion room at Pierce Elementary in Cedar Rapids because, according to the girl and her family, she couldn’t stop crying.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and six other lawyers filed a petition in June 2017 seeking changes in Chapter 103. The ACLU said at the time seclusion and restraints have been used too widely as punishment, particularly for kids with disabilities or black children.
The proposed rules were drafted by a state work group that included educators, parents, administrators and advocates. Mary Richard, a Coralville lawyer who served on the group, said she thinks they will help with staff training and enforcement.
“We feel this is a step forward,” she said. “The department also has made a greater commitment to monitoring this.”
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The 100 Iowa school districts that reported using seclusion in 2015-2016 did so more than 11,000 times combined that school year, according to U.S. Education Department data gathered by Richard. The Des Moines school district had the largest number of incidents at 3,051, but Council Bluffs, with 1,106 incidents, had the highest rate in the state with 121 incidents per 1,000 students in the district.
Iowa City reported 786 seclusion incidents in 2015-2016, which was 58 per 1,000 students, and Cedar Rapids reported 612 incidents, or 37 per 1,000 students.
Iowa City dismantled the last of its 6-by-6-foot free-standing seclusion rooms last summer. The district of about 14,000 students still uses seclusion but has improved staff training and implemented a clinical psychiatry approach for high school students.
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