Education

New Iowa school seclusion rules up for a vote next week

Revisions from February proposal relax requirements for schools

Pieces of the wall that were used to make a seclusion room in the functional skills suite sit in the hallway after being dismantled at Iowa City High School in Iowa City on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Pieces of the wall that were used to make a seclusion room in the functional skills suite sit in the hallway after being dismantled at Iowa City High School in Iowa City on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

The State Board of Education will vote next week on new rules for school seclusion and restraint.

There are some changes from a version proposed in February, including giving schools two years to increase the size of small seclusion rooms and relaxing the timeline for school officials to communicate with parents when children are secluded or restrained.

If the board approves the new Chapter 103 of Iowa’s Administrative Code at a meeting Aug. 1 in Des Moines, the rules would go into effect Oct. 2.

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.

A 2016 Gazette investigation of seclusion incidents in the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids school districts showed seclusion rooms usually were used as intended.

But The Gazette found reported incidents in which kids were put into the rooms for non-violent acts, such as refusing to trace in pencil, stepping out of line at recess and pouting.

Many of those incidents were confirmed by a 2017 state investigation.

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and six other lawyers filed a petition in June 2017 seeking changes to Chapter 103.

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

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

The February draft rules also said there must be “imminent threat of serious physical injury” or “serious damage to property of significant value” for staff to seclude or restrain a student. The word “serious” was a critical addition for Iowans who said these practices were being overused.

The Iowa Department of Eduction put the draft rules out for public comment and received 30 responses, including 11 from people at a public hearing March 5 in Des Moines. The department tweaked the proposed rules, in most cases easing requirements after educators said some were burdensome.

In the new version, schools wouldn’t need to alert parents immediately when seclusion or restraint is started, but within 10 minutes. The state also gives schools two years to comply with the room size requirement, which bothers Dina Bishara, an Iowa City parent and member of the Iowa City Autism Community organization.

“Is it possible that some district would be allowed to stick a student in a 5-by-5 cell?” she asked after seeing the new proposal. “Or is there some floor we can count on statewide?”

Bishara also wonders about wording that says a mental health professional is required in seclusion or restraint debriefings, but then says “if needed.”

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But Bishara likes an addition that explains six ways not to use seclusion rooms, such as for discipline or staff convenience.

The Education Department didn’t budge on requiring the student’s behavior risk serious harm to trigger seclusion or restraint.

“One commenter requested that ‘serious’ be stricken from the rule,” the department noted in the summary of the new Chapter 103 rules. “The Department declined to strike this qualifier because a serious injury or serious damage to property should be considered. However, what is serious is quantified on a cases-by case basis.”

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

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