IOWA LEGISLATURE

Are therapeutic classrooms the same as seclusion? Iowa bill has advocates concerned

Advocates for civil and disability rights question bill aimed at making classrooms safer

The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (The Gazette)
The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (The Gazette)

An education bill that has cleared early hurdles in the Iowa Senate would push challenging students out of general education classrooms rather than provide services to keep them with their peers, according to advocates for civil rights and disability rights.

Senate File 2190, which would provide nearly $1.6 million in grants for therapeutic classrooms, does little to define what these rooms would be or the services they would offer — opening the door for misuse, said Daniel Zeno, director of policy and advocacy for the ACLU of Iowa.

“The way this definition is written, there’s a plausible argument an educator could put a student in seclusion and say it’s a therapeutic classroom,” Zeno said.

The bill also expands the reasons school staff may use physical force and contradicts, in some cases, proposed new rules for school seclusion and restraint the Iowa Department of Education and community stakeholders spent two years revising.

The House version, House Study Bill 598, was debated last week and is scheduled for another hearing Wednesday.

“We’re looking at some possible changes, but this is nothing but a bill to make sure classes are safe and teachers are safe,” said Rep. Cecil Dolecheck, R-Mount Ayr, chair of the House Education Committee.

Education groups told lawmakers last week behavioral issues are becoming more common in the classroom, with staff and students sometimes being assaulted.

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Iowa law provides ways for staff to deal with these incidents, Zeno said, including the option to restrain or isolate a student at risk of harming himself or someone else.

The State Board of Education will consider this spring a new version of seclusion and restraint rules that was negotiated through committee meetings, two rounds of public hearings and compromise by educators and civil rights groups.

“We all worked for two years to come up with that language and it’s gone out twice now for public comment,” said Nathan Kirstein, staff attorney for Disability Rights Iowa. “Now we’re going to stomp all over that process and add these words that broaden the opportunity to use physical force.”

SF 2190 and HSB 598 allow educators to use force to relocate “a student who is not responding to verbal or written instructions that are intended to change the immediate behavior of the student” or a “student who is exhibiting passive resistance behaviors.”

Using physical force on a student who isn’t hurting anyone, but who is using “passive resistance behaviors,” could backfire, pushing a distressed student to lash out, Zeno said.

“A student who experiences trauma and comes to school might put their head down on their desk,” he said. “That is a passive resistance behavior. (Under the proposed legislation) the teacher has authority to use physical force to relocate the student. Using physical contact could escalate that situation.”

Money available for therapeutic classroom grants would be better spent providing extra services to keep kids with behavioral issues in the classrooms, Zeno and Kirstein said.

Federal law requires special education students to be educated as much as possible with their non-disabled peers.

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Rep. Molly Donahue, D-Cedar Rapids, who is on the education subcommittee considering HSB 598, said the bill was well-intentioned but encompasses too much and may disproportionately affect students of color and students with disabilities.

The Cedar Rapids teacher wants to increase school funding to provide for more training and higher staffing levels.

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

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