Education

Iowa board rejects new school seclusion rules

New petition for rule making could come back to the board this fall, another vote possible in 2020

A space that formerly was used for a seclusion room in the functional skills suite is seen Aug. 1, 2018, at Iowa City High School. Marks can be seen on the wall where the seclusion room was built. The district has removed its seclusion rooms. (Gazette photo)
A space that formerly was used for a seclusion room in the functional skills suite is seen Aug. 1, 2018, at Iowa City High School. Marks can be seen on the wall where the seclusion room was built. The district has removed its seclusion rooms. (Gazette photo)

DES MOINES — The State Board of Education unanimously rejected new rules for student seclusion and restraint after school administrators complained Thursday the proposed rules were too strict and not practical in the classroom.

Iowa Department of Education officials pledged to get more public input, revise the rules again and bring a new version back to the board as soon as November.

But the vote frustrated Daniel Zeno, legal counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which represented families whose children have been put in seclusion in Iowa schools for reasons that included stepping out of line at recess, tearing up a work sheet and crying uncontrollably.

“It’s been two years of work, two years of meetings,” he said. “Then to have a unanimous ‘no’ vote based on the concerns of individual superintendents and administrators about how complicated the rules would be to implement. It is extremely disappointing.”

In Iowa, trained school employees are allowed to restrain or isolate students when the students’ actions risk harm to themselves or others. Educators in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City have said these practices are the last resort after attempts to calm the student by other means have failed.

The ACLU and six other lawyers filed a petition in June 2017 seeking changes to Chapter 103, which governs how seclusion and restraint may be used in Iowa.

A state work group of educators, parents, administrators and advocates drafted a new Chapter 103, unveiled in February.

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These propose rules made major changes, including requiring seclusion rooms to be permanent structures of at least 7 feet square and requiring staff to alert parents as seclusion or restraint was started.

After listening to public comments, the Education Department issued a revised set of rules last week that relaxed some proposed requirements.

In that version, schools wouldn’t have needed to alert parents immediately when seclusion or restraint is started, but within 10 minutes. The state also gave schools two years to comply with the room size requirement. But the Education Department didn’t budge on requiring that the student’s behavior risk serious harm to trigger the use of seclusion or restraint.

Several school administrators who spoke during the public comment period at Thursday’s meeting said the July version of the rules still was too burdensome for school employees.

“We have urged and urged again the modifier ‘serious’ be removed and school employees be authorized (to use seclusion or restraint) when any injury is imminently threatened,” said Jay Hammond, legal counsel for the Iowa State Education Association.

“It defies reason to expect school employee to differentiate between what might be a serious injury and what might be any injury. How is an individual to make that assessment in the few seconds they might have to prevent that injury? It ignores the realities of the classroom.”

Seclusion room size requirements and the amount of time school officials have to alert parents are other sticking points.

Until it’s changed, the current Chapter 103 remains in effect. It now calls for seclusion spaces to be of “reasonable” dimension and says schools must attempt to contact a child’s parent or guardian the same day seclusion is used.

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Several board members said Thursday they would like more time for public comment on Chapter 103, which was last revised in 2008.

“I know you’ve worked really hard on this and two years is a long time,” said Bettie Bolar, of Marshalltown. “But we want to get it right.”

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

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