Education

Student seclusion reports kept secret by Cedar Rapids, Iowa City school districts

Cedar Rapids elementaries had 237 incidents in first month of classes alone

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 outside. The Cedar Rapids district used rooms like this, or physical restraints, 237 times in the first month of school this academic year. But it refused to release more data to explain it. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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Cedar Rapids elementary school students were held in seclusion rooms or physically restrained 237 times in the first month of this school year — more than 10 times a day and more than four times as much as in the first month of the 2015-2016 school year.

But the Cedar Rapids Community School District will not disclose information showing why students were secluded or restrained, so it’s impossible for the public to know if these practices are being used as intended — a last resort to prevent students from hurting themselves or others — or as discipline for lesser infractions.

Nor will the public know the reason behind the leap from 59 incidents in the first month of school in 2015.

“We would like to know what is happening in our schools in terms of conduct that can be traumatic,” said Mary Richard, a Coralville lawyer who in 2017 filed a state complaint on behalf of a Cedar Rapids Pierce Elementary third-grader held in an unauthorized seclusion room because she wouldn’t stop crying.

The Iowa City Community School District also has refused to release seclusion information and won’t say how many times elementary students were secluded or restrained for the first month of the school year.

Both school districts, serving more than 30,000 students combined, say the reports are confidential records that can’t be made public — even if the specific student information is blacked out. That stance is a reversal of the districts’ decision in 2016 to release the redacted reports to The Gazette.

Districts withold reports: School districts reverse course, won’t provide student seclusion data

Revealing reports

School seclusion has been a lightning rod in recent years as more parents learn about 6-by-6 foot rooms with padded walls used to contain overwrought students in schools across Iowa.

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For more than a year, the Iowa Department of Education has been revising Chapter 103 of Iowa’s Administrative Rules governing how seclusion and restraint are to be used in schools.

The State Board of Education rejected one revision in August after school administrators said it was too burdensome. A second draft, which relaxed district requirements, likely will be considered for approval in March.

The Gazette’s 2016 review of more than 125 seclusion and restraint reports from Cedar Rapids and Iowa City showed most elementary students were put into seclusion for violent behavior that included kicking, biting, hitting and throwing items that could harm others.

But the reports also revealed occasions when staff shuttered kids for non-violent acts like refusing to trace in pencil, stepping out of line at recess and pouting.

The reports can be heart-rending.

The 2016 review included reports of students in seclusion sobbing, calling out for their parents and, in one case, shouting “I want to see a dog!” Students also used extreme actions to try to get out, such as kicking the door, taking off their clothes and threatening suicide. In one Cedar Rapids report from 2015, an elementary student tore paper off the drywall and spread bodily fluids on the walls and floor during 34 minutes in a seclusion room.

When the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica last fall published similar reports from Illinois public schools, the impact was nearly immediate: Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued an emergency order to end the use of school seclusion, calling the isolation of students “appalling.”

Some Illinois lawmakers want to ban seclusion nationwide.

Seclusion reports also help parents and community members understand the challenges teachers face, often in classrooms crowded with 30 or 40 students, to maintain a safe space where everyone can learn.

Teacher and staff injuries that involved students rose 88 percent, from 226 to 425, in the past five years in the Des Moines Public Schools, the Des Moines Register reported in November.

Reporter Lee Rood cited reports of a middle-school girl forcing a classmate to the floor and stomping on him, a student threatening to stab a principal with a knife and two girls assaulting another student and then punching a staff member before running through the halls screaming profanities.

Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, who serves on the state Senate Education Committee, said many schools struggle when they don’t have adequate state funding to hire teachers, paraeducators and nurses.

“How do you make sure students are safe and staff are in control of classrooms?” he asked. “It all comes back to class sizes and resources that are available.”

Wahls said Wednesday, after emerging from an Education Committee meeting, that Committee Chairwoman Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, designated safety in schools as one of her priorities in the 2020 legislative session. Wahls expects school seclusion to be part of that conversation.

accountability doubt

Following The Gazette’s 2016 article and a complaint by Richard to the state, a 2017 state investigation showed the Iowa City school district violated federal law because many parents didn’t know about the small enclosures used for seclusion and the rooms were being used more broadly than intended.

National data also show black, Latino, Native American and multiracial students disproportionately face physical restraint and seclusion.

By August 2018, the Iowa City school district had removed all of its 6-by-6 foot seclusion rooms and made other major changes, including improving staff training, switching to electronic reports and implementing a new clinical psychiatry approach for high school students.

The goal was to reduce the need for seclusion and restraint, officials said. But without allowing the public to see new reports or seclusion numbers, the public can’t tell if that happened.

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“I think there is absolute value in seeing that data,” said Tammy Nyden, an Iowa City parent.

Nyden started home schooling her son because she didn’t think the Iowa City school district was making adequate accommodations for his Tourette syndrome, autism and other challenges including anxiety and compulsion.

The boy now is a teenager, but when he was in elementary school, Nyden lost track of how many times he was put into seclusion for throwing objects, hitting and screaming threats. She said she’d like to see whether changes made in the district are reducing seclusion incidents.

Dina Bishara, an Iowa City parent and co-founder of the Iowa City Autism Community, said seeing the 2016 seclusion reports was critical to bringing about change.

“If we didn’t see that students were being secluded for these piddly little infractions before, this story wouldn’t have gotten so much traction,” she said. “To build trust in the community, I feel it would really behoove the district to work toward more transparency in regards to this issue than we have historically seen.”

Public response

Janet Godwin, president of the Iowa City School Board, had little to say about whether the redacted seclusion reports should be public.

“Our district is following advice of legal counsel not to provide the requested information due to FERPA,” she said, referring to a federal privacy law. “The school board has been and will continue to monitor this issue closely.”

Cedar Rapids Board of Education President Nancy Humbles did not respond to two phone messages and two emails last week.

Iowa Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said he didn’t understand why the school districts would have provided the records in 2016 and then changed course for the 2019 reports.

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“It’s one thing if the information had never been given out before, but it makes it extra suspicious that it’s been done in the past with a clear spike of kids being placed in those (rooms),” he said. “Is there something to hide?”

Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said districts regularly release aggregated or redacted data. “If they remove name, grade and school, there is no confidentiality being broken,” he said.

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

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