DES MOINES — Iowa is one of only a handful of states that allow for the use of seclusion in school when no one’s physical safety is threatened. The state Board of Education has proposed rules that would change that, and on Tuesday held a public hearing on those changes.
The changes to Chapter 103 of the Iowa Administrative Code aim to reduce the use of seclusion and restraint in schools except in an emergency situation, increase parent involvement, and provide clear guidelines and definitions for schools. The public input period began in January and came to a close with the public hearing Tuesday.
A 2016 Gazette investigation of seclusion incidents in the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids school districts showed these rooms usually were used as intended — to keep agitated students from harming themselves or others. But The Gazette found reported incidents in which kids were put into the rooms for nonviolent 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.
On Tuesday, state legal counsel Nicole Proesch said she received “about 40 emails” in the last few days before the hearing. “We want [the rules] to go forward with a consensus. We really don’t want to not be on the same page if we’re making changes,” Proesch said. “We want to make them better — there’s always room for improvement.”
Des Moines attorney Katherine Beenken cited concerns rules might conflict with ongoing obligations from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
“I’m talking specifically about the existing obligation to ensure a student receives free and appropriate public education. Some of the meetings that would be required … could be conflicting with an IEP (individualized education plan) team’s decision,” she said. “We would recommend the department exhibit or propose express authority for the IEP team to make the final determination [if seclusion or restraint is appropriate] when there is an eligible individual, under IDEA.”
Beenken and others also cited concerns about the proposed “debriefing meetings,” including the practicality of scheduling a meeting that, per the proposed revision, could include “dozens” of school employees. “If the goal of this meeting is to be problem-solving, the structure of the meeting could be viewed as combative,” she said.
The proposed revisions state, “Schools must hold a debriefing meeting as soon as practicable, but within five school days of the day the report and letter are mailed or provided to the parent, unless a parent who wants to participate personally or through a representative asks for an extension of time, or the parent and school agree to an alternate date and time. The student may attend the meeting with the parent’s consent. The parent may elect to be accompanied by other individuals or representatives. The meeting must include employees who administered the physical restraint or seclusion, an administrator or employee who was not involved in the occurrence, the individual or administrator who approved continuation of the physical restraint or seclusion, and other relevant personnel designated by the school (such as principal, counselor, classroom teacher, special education teacher).”
Matt Carver, legal services director for School Administrators of Iowa, expressed concerns about the documentation revisions proposed. “Generally, we find the current documentation and wording requirements, as well as the reference to the briefing, to be adequate and we encourage the state to leave those as they are,” he said. “ … We find the proposed rules to be overly burdensome on educators. The amount of time needed to follow through would take away time the educators should be spending with children.”
Public commenters also asked what an isolation room would look like in practice. According to the proposed rule changes, the rooms would have to be permanent structures at least 7-feet wide and cannot be “free-standing cells.”
“We have a lot of buildings from the 1930s,” Proesh responded, adding it was easier for newer buildings to provide the required space.
Des Moines Public Schools program facilitator Leslie Timmerman said the change in room requirements could cause students to face a “loss of dignity,” especially in schools not currently equipped with such a space. “I don’t want to exploit or sensationalize the behavior that students go through, but I will let you know that those events are safety concerns … and require privacy,” she said.
“The goal here is to ensure that seclusion rooms — isolation rooms — are used as a last resort, and not for discipline, and only in emergency situations,” said Daniel Zeno, policy director for ACLU of Iowa.
The soonest the board could be presented amended rules is the March 20 meeting, but Proesch didn’t anticipate the state would adhere to that “fast timeline.”
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“We’re not in a hurry,” she said. “ … We want to make sure we process the comments and sit down and make sure they’re done right.”
In addition to presenting to the state board of education, the amended rules need to go through the administrative rules committee.