State seeks compromise on student seclusion rules

Sticking points: Room size, notifying parents, when to use

The seclusion room at Arthur Elementary School in Cedar Rapids, photographed Wednesday, has padded walls, a window and a door.
The seclusion room at Arthur Elementary in Cedar Rapids has padded walls and a window. The Iowa Education Department is trying again to reach agreement on rules that govern student seclusion rooms like this. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
The seclusion room at Arthur Elementary School in Cedar Rapids, photographed Wednesday, has padded walls, a window and a door that's unlocked from outside. The district's seclusion rooms are 6-foot-by-6-foot, smaller than a 7-foot-by-7-foot recommendation that was rejected earlier this month by the State Board of Education. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Educators will get more say in a new proposed set of rules for school student seclusion and restraint after the State Board of Education earlier this month voted down a proposal some school administrators felt was too burdensome.

Despite the unanimous “no” vote on Aug. 1, Iowa Department of Education Director Ryan Wise called the draft a “B+” and directed his staff to build on that version, finding further consensus between family advocates and educators.

In Iowa, trained school employees are allowed to restrain or isolate students when the students’ actions risk harm to themselves or others. The ACLU and six other lawyers filed a petition in June 2017 seeking changes to Chapter 103, which governs how seclusion and restraint may be used in Iowa.

With the rewrite of the rules that came from that process now rejected, the state plans to have regional public meetings in September and October before bringing a new set of proposals back to the board to consider in November, Deputy Director David Tilly said.

If the board supports the new draft, the state will file a notice of intended action that would start a 108-day public comment period. The board could vote on new rules by next spring.

So how do educators and family advocates differ on three key points of contention?

How large should seclusion rooms be?

Chapter 103 of Iowa’s Administrative Rules says seclusion rooms must be of “reasonable dimensions,” but a work group that developed a new version of the rules in February specified rooms must be at least 7 feet by 7 feet.

“The size of the rooms is based on safety,” Tilly said. “If rooms are too small, kids can literally climb the walls.”

The state does not require districts to report on the size of their seclusion rooms, Tilly said, but the Cedar Rapids Community School District does not have any seclusion rooms that are 7-by-7 feet, spokeswoman Akwi Nji said. “Our largest room is 6-by-6,” she said.

A July revision of the proposed rules change gave districts two years to get all seclusion rooms to the 7-by-7 foot size, but some school administrators at an Aug. 1 meeting said they wanted the size requirement waived or extended further.

“Schools have gone through a lot of construction and built rooms that are safe, and meet every rule, except for square footage,” said Margaret Buckton, legislative analyst for the Urban Education Network, which represents Iowa’s eight largest school districts, including Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. “Many of our construction plans are five to 10 years out and it could be a while until we get to those (expansions).”

What constitutes “serious” injury?

Family advocates who served on the work group revising Chapter 103 were adamant seclusion and restraint be used only in cases where students pose a risk of serious injury to themselves or others so that this “last resort” intervention isn’t overused.

“It is a traumatic experience for a kid to be put in what is essentially solitary confinement,” Daniel Zeno, American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa policy director, said Aug. 1.

He pointed to Gazette reports and a state investigation showing some Iowa children have been secluded for crying and stepping out of line at recess. “There have been egregious violations,” Zeno said.

But educators wanted to remove “serious” from the new rules because of the challenges for teachers in determining whether a student’s behavior is likely to cause serious injury.

“How is an individual to make that assessment in the few seconds they might have to prevent that injury?” Jay Hammond, general counsel for the Iowa State Education Association, asked Aug. 1. “There is no justification for allowing any injury to occur of any magnitude if it can be prevented by using proper and reasonable restraint.”

How fast should parents find out?

Under Chapter 103, which has been in place since 2008, parents or guardians of a student placed in seclusion or restraint might not find out about the incident until several days later, when the paperwork arrives in the mail.

Changes proposed in February said schools must alert parents immediately about seclusion or restraint incidents, just as they would if a child broke his or her leg or had a seizure, Tilly said. But educators pointed out if they were restraining a child because of his or her behavior they couldn’t call home simultaneously.

The June rules draft gave school staff 10 minutes to call parents or guardians, but the Urban Education Network suggested a three-hour deadline instead.

“Schools are understaffed,” Buckton said. “We don’t want anyone to turn their attention away from that (a child’s safety) to meet that 10-minute time period.”

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