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School seclusion underreported in Iowa, other states, report shows

U.S. Government Accountability Office wants Education Department to fix reporting problems

The Iowa City Community School District decided to remove designated student seclusion rooms. Pieces of a wall that were used to make a seclusion room in the functional skills suite sit in the hallway Aug, 1, 2018, after being dismantled at Iowa City High School. (The Gazette)
The Iowa City Community School District decided to remove designated student seclusion rooms. Pieces of a wall that were used to make a seclusion room in the functional skills suite sit in the hallway Aug, 1, 2018, after being dismantled at Iowa City High School. (The Gazette)

Nearly 60 percent of Iowa school districts reported no student seclusion or restraint incidents in 2015-2016, part of a “pervasive pattern of underreporting” nationwide, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Most American school districts are required every two years to report seclusion and restraint data to the federal government’s Civil Rights Data Collection as a way for parents, educators and government officials to monitor use of these last-resort practices used with agitated children whose behavior threatens harm to themselves or others.

“Our analyses of 2015-16 CRDC data and review of Education documents indicate that CRDC data do not accurately capture all incidents of restraint and seclusion in schools,” the GAO wrote in a June 18 report to Congress.

The Accountability Office found 70 percent of districts nationwide — including some large districts, such as New York and Philadelphia public schools — reported zeros for incidents of seclusion and restraint. Follow-up interviews with some of the districts show many listed zeros when they should have left the fields blank because they didn’t have data for various reasons.

“The CRDC submission tool should not allow a district to certify its submission unless all required data pass the system validation checks or all errors are explained,” the report states.

The report was sparked, in part, by a 2018 request from U.S. Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley for the U.S. Department of Education to investigate “systemic misreporting” of seclusion and restraint incidents.

The Iowa Republican senators called out the Cedar Rapids Community School District in the May 17, 2018, letter for having 1,400 incidents of seclusion and restraint in 2012-2013 and 2013-2014, but reporting zero incidents to the federal government.

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As part of the GAO review, the agency followed up with three Iowa districts that reported no seclusion or restraint incidents in 2015-2016. The report does not name the districts, or note what district officials said about their reasons for listing zeros.

Ernst’s staff also did not answer questions about which districts were contacted or how they responded to the federal probe.

Grassley said in a regular weekly conference call with journalists Wednesday that accurate reporting is the first step to ensuring student seclusion and restraint aren’t overused. But he doesn’t want to see increased involvement by the federal government.

“I want this to be handled at the local and state level,” he said. “I think this information is very important to bring public understanding that it’s a problem. We need to keep monitoring the situation and hopefully that solves the issue.”

The GAO recommended the U.S. Education Department:

• Remind all school districts they shouldn’t report zeros when the data actually aren’t collected or are incomplete.

• Follow up with districts that already have submitted reports with zeros for 2017-2018 to make sure that’s accurate.

• Monitor action plans submitted by schools with incomplete data to make sure the districts follow through with steps to fix their reporting systems.

• Prominently disclose for past collections the potential misreporting of seclusion and restraint numbers.

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The Iowa Board of Education is considering changes to Iowa’s administrative code that governs how Iowa districts handle seclusion and restraint. The proposed changes are expected to reduce the occasions seclusion or restraint could be used and require more parent notification, among other provisions.

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

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