IOWA CITY — The Iowa City school district’s use of seclusion rooms for agitated students violates federal law because many parents don’t know about the small enclosures and the rooms are being used more broadly than intended, according to a complaint an Iowa City lawyer filed last week with the Iowa Department of Education.
Further, black students were disproportionately put into Iowa City seclusion rooms in 2013-14, the complaint by Mary M. Richard states.
The Iowa City school district decided last month to form a committee to consider whether to keep, modify or eliminate seclusion rooms.
The committee of teachers, parents, support staff, community members and child behavior specialists will make recommendations to the school board.
Among alleged violations outlined in Richard’s complaint, district officials don’t tell parents time outs often occur in 6-by-6-foot seclusion rooms, and don’t show parents the rooms that exist in 16 Iowa City schools and use recycled tires to pad the walls and floors.
“Failure of the ICCSD to inform parents of children attending schools where seclusion rooms are located, that the time-outs written into their children’s (Individualized Education Programs) may take place in the type of seclusion unit described in this Complaint, and to offer the parent an opportunity to view the seclusion unit, is a substantive violation of the IDEA,” she wrote, referring to the U.S. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
“The presence of these seclusion rooms inside special education classrooms serves as a threat of incarceration for children assigned to these rooms, and is likely to suggest to some of them that they are people who may expect incarceration in the future.”
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Black students make up about 19 percent of the Iowa City school district population, Richard states in the complaint. Yet, of 213 incidents of seclusion among 52 Iowa City students in special education in the 2013-14 school year, half the students were black, Richard reported, using data the district submitted to the Office of Civil Right of the U.S. Department of Education. Another 23 black students without IEPs were secluded that school year, her complaint states.
Nationally, minority students also make up a greater share of students put in the rooms, according to a December report from the Executive Office of the President.
Blacks, accounting for about 16 percent of the school population nationwide, represented 25 percent of students physically restrained, 34 percent of students mechanically restrained and 22 percent of students secluded in the 2013-14 school year, the report states. Latino, Native American and multiracial students also were disproportionately represented in some of the categories.
Richard wants the Iowa City district to use seclusion rooms only in “emergency situations in which a student’s behavior poses immediate danger of serious physical injury.” She also wants staff to stop using the term “time out” to describe seclusion and to show parents the rooms if there’s a chance their child will be put in one.
Richard advocates replacing seclusion rooms with calming rooms stripped of padded materials and considered more therapeutic.
A Gazette review of seclusion room reports from the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids districts showed 125 occasions when elementary children were placed in seclusion rooms during the first month of the 2015-16 school year. Kicking, biting, hitting and throwing items triggered isolation in most cases, but a few reports showed staff putting kids into seclusion for non-violent acts like refusing to trace in pencil, stepping out of line at recess and pouting, the investigation published in September found.
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