Education

School districts reverse course, won't provide student seclusion data

Here's what The Gazette asked for and what it got in response

The seclusion room at Arthur Elementary School in Cedar Rapids, photographed Aug. 21, 2109, has padded walls, a window a
The seclusion room at Arthur Elementary School in Cedar Rapids, photographed Aug. 21, 2109, has padded walls, a window and a door that locks from the outside. The Cedar Rapids district used rooms like this, or physical restraints, 237 times in the first month of school during the 2019-2020 academic year. But it refused to release more data to explain it. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

If a student’s actions threaten harm and attempts to defuse the behavior fail, school staff in Iowa are allowed to restrain a child and place him or her in seclusion.

When staff take this step, they are required by Chapter 103 of Iowa’s Administrative Rules to document what led to the seclusion or restraint, what alternatives were tried, how long the child was isolated and whether anyone was hurt or property damaged.

Seclusion documents: See the forms used by Cedar Rapids schools and Iowa City schools

The Gazette filed an open records request Nov. 21 with the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City school districts, asking for copies of all seclusion and restraint reports from the first month of the school year to get a sense of how often these last-resort practices are used in local districts.

The newspaper asked that any identifying information, such as students’ names, grades, schools and teachers’ names, be blacked out.

The Gazette did not seek reports for older students because there would be so few that the information might identify specific students.

Gazette investigation: Cedar Rapids elementaries had 237 incidents in first month of 2019-20 classes alone

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This request was almost identical to an open records request The Gazette filed with the same districts in 2016. At that time, there was some negotiation about how the records would be provided and about cost — The Gazette paid $400 per district — but the records were turned over.

But this time, the response was different.

The Cedar Rapids Community School District said Nov. 22 it would provide seclusion reports from the first month of school for $230. The Gazette submitted a check and waited for the data.

The Iowa City Community School District denied the request Dec. 4, saying that after consulting with legal counsel “we will not be providing public access to student education records.”

The Gazette directed the school district to review the Iowa Attorney General’s Sunshine Advisory, updated in 2014, stating that even if public records include confidential information “officials usually can black out confidential information and release the rest.”

District spokeswoman Kristin Pedersen said the advice did not require release of the records. She referred to the 2012 Iowa Supreme Court case of the Iowa City Press-Citizen v. the University of Iowa.

“The University ... argues that FERPA prohibits the disclosure of the remaining documents, including even redacted versions of ‘education records’ where the identity of the student is known to the recipient,” the ruling states, referring to federal student privacy laws. “We ultimately agree with the University’s arguments as to the meaning and force of FERPA, and therefore reverse the District Court’s judgment in part.”

The Gazette reminded the district proper redactions would not identify students and asked to speak to the district’s lawyer to see if a compromise could be reached, but Pedersen said no.

“We decline to expend public school funds for our attorney to schedule a phone call with you,” she said in a Dec. 9 email.

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The same day, Cedar Rapids officials switched their earlier decision and told The Gazette they would not be providing the redacted reports.

“After notifying our legal counsel of this request, they’ve advised us that under 22.7(1) of the Iowa Code, student education records, including Chapter 103 reporting forms, are confidential records,” spokeswoman Akwi Nji said. The district voided and returned The Gazette’s $230 check.

The Cedar Rapids district did tell The Gazette’s how many seclusion or restraint incidents happened in the first month of school — unlike the Iowa City district, which declined to give the information.

Cedar Rapids schools staff used seclusion or restraint 237 times from Aug. 26 to Sept. 25 within Cedar Rapids’ 21 elementary schools, which was more than 10 incidents per school day.

Both school districts provided blank Chapter 103 forms, which The Gazette has attached with this story online.

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

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