K-12 Education

Iowa's metro school districts studying use of seclusion for student behavior

Waterloo schools hiring consultant to review issues, including racial disparities

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

Several metro Iowa school districts are reconsidering the way educators use seclusion for students who are at risk of harming themselves or others.

The Waterloo school district, which has the highest share of black students among Iowa districts, is paying a Florida-based consultant $12,000 to review behavioral focus programs in the district with the goal of reducing out-of-school suspensions, student restraint and seclusion as well as lessening the disproportionality of black students enrolled in the behavior program.

“Waterloo is completing an outside evaluation of behavior programming to further develop a system of supports for students that decrease confinements,” Larry Martin, director of support services for the Waterloo school district, said in an email.

Secluding students in small enclosures — often called timeout rooms or safe rooms — is a last resort for school staff trying to educate children with mental illness, developmental disabilities or trauma that may cause them to act out violently.

Use of these rooms in the Iowa City district spurred a complaint to the state and a 24-person task force studying whether the district should keep, eliminate or modify the 6-by-6-foot seclusion rooms used in 16 Iowa City schools. The committee will make recommendations in April, district officials said.

Metro district survey

The Gazette in January asked eight of Iowa’s largest school districts — all members of the Urban Education Network — how often students had been placed in seclusion rooms in the 2015-16 school year, how many seclusion rooms were in the district and whether use of the rooms was being reviewed.

Of six districts that provided all the requested information, Council Bluffs, with 9,125 students in 2015-16, reported the most occasions in which seclusion was used last year at 1,131.

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Council Bluffs has four seclusion rooms — three in elementaries and one in a middle school, Superintendent Martha Bruckner said.

“We work so hard with every single kid we get,” Bruckner said. “Sometimes we have to deal with things most families have never seen before.”

In contract, the Sioux City school district, with just under 15,000 students last year, put students in seclusion rooms only 56 times, with about half of those times students not being allowed to exit at will.

Income challenges

Mental illness and trauma, which some research shows are seen disproportionately among low-income students, can cause kids to be combative sometimes.

Six of eight of Iowa’s largest urban school districts have a greater share of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch than the state average of 42 percent. The Des Moines district, with 33,500 students in 2015-16, had the highest share at 75 percent, followed by Sioux City at 67.8 percent.

Des Moines would not provide data to The Gazette showing how many times students were put into seclusion in 2015-16. The district has 11 seclusion rooms — called safety rooms in the district — in five schools specialized for high-needs students, according to spokesman Philip Roeder.

“Before a student is served by one of these specialized schools or programs, parents and guardians receive a tour, including the safety rooms, and safety room procedures are explained,” Roeder wrote in an email. “Parents and guardians are notified whenever their student spends any time in a safety room. Safety rooms are only used when a high-needs student is an immediate danger to themselves, staff or other students, and the room is always monitored by an adult if it is in use.”

One concern that led to Iowa City’s study of seclusion rooms was parents having little knowledge of their use.

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Mary Richard, an Iowa City lawyer, filed a complaint in December with the Iowa Department of Education saying the Iowa City district’s use of seclusion rooms violates federal law because many parents don’t know about the small enclosures. Richard also asserted black students were disproportionately put in the rooms.

Racial disparities

Black students make up about 19 percent of the Iowa City school district population, Richard said 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, she reported, using data the district submitted to the Office of Civil Right of the U.S. Department of Education.

Nationally, minority students also make up a greater share of students put in seclusion, according to a December report from the Executive Office of the President.

Black students, 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.

Waterloo is Iowa’s seventh-largest school district with 11,105 students in the 2015-16 school year, but of Iowa school districts, it has the largest share who are black at 26 percent.

Waterloo reported 22 students spent time in the district’s eight seclusion rooms in 2015-16, but would not provide the overall number of seclusion incidents.

A Gazette investigation published in September showed some Cedar Rapids and Iowa City students who were secluded were put in the rooms more than once during the first month of the 2015-16 school year. One Cedar Rapids elementary student was secluded 10 times that month, records showed.

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Martin, Waterloo’s support services director, said there had been no formal complaints about seclusion rooms.

Waterloo hired LifeShare Educational Resources in December to do on-site program evaluations, interviews and assessment in January and February, followed this August by behavioral services professional development. The contract, obtained by The Gazette through an open records request, calls for the company to provide a report Feb. 28, but district spokeswoman Tara Thomas said the report was not public.

Waterloo School Board President Shanlee McNally declined to comment on the study.

Other metro school districts said they are doing informal reviews of the use of seclusion.

“We are looking at why the rooms are being used, how often they are being used, and whether or not the documentation is complete,” said Wendy Parker, Cedar Rapids’ executive director of special services.

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

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