Guest Columnist

Iowa City's seclusion secrecy raises serious questions

Pieces of the wall that were used to make a seclusion room in the functional skills suite sit in the hallway after being
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)

In response to a request from Gazette reporter Erin Jordan, the Iowa City Community School District has recently declined to release data on how many times elementary students were secluded or restrained for the first month of the school year, as well as the reasons for any incidents of seclusion or restraint (“Student seclusion reports kept secret by Cedar Rapids, Iowa City school districts,” Jan. 20).

There are clearly competing interests here — we know we need to protect the privacy of students, and at the same time we also need to 1) protect students who may be subjected to the inappropriate application of seclusion and restraint and 2) respect the community’s need for transparency on this issue.

It’s been a couple years, but let me remind the reader that the Iowa Department of Education “review, released in June [2017], determined that the District broke state and federal law by occasionally sending students to seclusion rooms for having a bad attitude, using foul language or being out of instructional control, among other reasons” (Time, November 18, 2017). In the 2015-2016 academic year, students were secluded nearly 800 times. Seclusion rooms were commonly 6-foot by 6-foot plywood boxes lined in black rubber.

Children — especially children with disabilities and children of color — have been harmed by the improper use of seclusion in our schools. (The ACLU reported in 2019 that “while students with disabilities made up 12 percent of enrolled students, they made up 66 percent of students subject to seclusion and 71 percent of students restrained. Additionally, while black students make up 15 percent of all students, they made up 23 percent of students secluded and 27 percent of students restrained.”) The details surrounding the improper use of seclusion were only revealed through the effort of local journalists and advocates. This is a reality that we must reckon with. So the question is, on what basis should this community assume that seclusion is being used in only emergent situations, by trained staff, who have done everything they can to avoid this emergency procedure, if the District is going to refuse to disclose information to journalists that it has, in fact, disclosed in the past?

I am certainly not an expert in Iowa’s sunshine laws or the Freedom of Information Act, and I can’t predict how this publication’s request will ultimately pan out, but regardless of the outcome, the following questions must be addressed:

Is seclusion data being reviewed on a school-by-school and classroom-by-classroom basis to determine which schools and/or staff are in need of 1) training in de-escalation strategies, 2) training in trauma/mental-health/disability -informed practices, 3) a culture/climate transformation, and/or 4) any other resources, including the provision of mental health evaluations and services for students who have been subjected to seclusion or restraint?

Is seclusion data being reviewed internally to determine if it is being applied in a disproportionate way toward students of color or with disabilities?

If so, who is responsible for this process and how often is it conducted?

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If a district employee is found to have used seclusion inappropriately, how, exactly, is this addressed?

Allow me to underline the gravity of the decision to seclude or restrain a child. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights “Fact Sheet: Restraint and Seclusion of Students with Disabilities” explains: “A school’s use of restraint or seclusion may have a traumatic impact on a student, such that even if she were never again restrained or secluded, she might nevertheless have new academic or behavioral difficulties that, if not addressed promptly, could constitute a denial of FAPE [free and appropriate public education]. That traumatizing effect could manifest itself in new behaviors, impaired concentration or attention in class, or increased absences, any of which could, if sufficiently severe and unaddressed, result in a denial of FAPE for that student.”

Disability, mental health, and special education advocates know better than anyone the tremendous effort and energy that so many of our teachers and support staff pour into our children, so often with insufficient resources. For that we are deeply and sincerely grateful. And at the same time, there is a deeply problematic history in this district (and many others) that cannot and should not be simply erased. Elementary school children cannot advocate for themselves — they depend on the vigilance of journalists, advocates, and community members to keep asking questions and requiring answers.

Dina Bishara is the parent of children in the Iowa City Community School District.

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