Forgive me, but I think some government officials forget they work for the people of Iowa, or maybe they just don’t want the public asking too many questions, especially if those questions could be embarrassing.
Regrettably, I come to this conclusion because every week or two I hear about another Iowa government board or council, or another government agency, that twists itself into knots to avoid sharing information with the public - information the citizens deserve to know, about an important matter that affects the school district, the city or our state government.
That was the inescapable conclusion last month when the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City school districts refused to tell the Cedar Rapids Gazette, along with parents and taxpayers in the two districts, why elementary students there have been placed in so-called “seclusion rooms” this academic year.
These rooms are small, padded enclosures - about 6 feet by 6 feet in size, with a door that locks from the outside. Students are confined there as a last resort to prevent them from hurting themselves, other students or teachers.
The rooms are not supposed to be used as discipline for lesser, non-violent infractions, like stepping out of line. But in 2017, the guardian of a third-grader complained to the Iowa Department of Education that the Cedar Rapids district locked the girl in a utility closet because she wouldn’t stop crying.
Cedar Rapids administrators told The Gazette there were 237 incidents during the first month of the 2019-2020 school year in which elementary students were restrained or were placed in seclusion rooms. Four years ago, there were 59 such incidents during the first month of school.
Iowa City school district officials were more secretive. They refused even to provide The Gazette with the number of times students were restrained or placed in seclusion rooms this school year.
The justification the Iowa City district’s lawyers gave for the secrecy is preposterous.
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They said FERPA, the acronym for the federal privacy law that protects students’ school records, ties the hands of school officials because each report about an incident that leads to use of a seclusion room is a confidential student record.
It is important to know that The Gazette specifically asked that all identifiable details about the incidents - the students’ names, the teachers’ names, the grade each student is in, along with the names of their schools - be blacked out to avoid breaking the privacy law.
The school lawyers said the information could not be turned over to The Gazette even with those details redacted. Information about the use of seclusion rooms exists only on individual students’ confidential records, the lawyers said. They claimed that non-identifiable information cannot be gleaned from those records and be made public without running afoul of FERPA.
That stretches believability.
Iowa City Superintendent Stephen Murley could, if he wanted, legally prepare a summary report on the frequency the district uses seclusion rooms, the reasons students are confined there, and the length of time they are in seclusion. If he wanted, Murley could share that report with residents of the Iowa City district without having to worry about getting in legal hot water.
That’s what an official would willingly do when he understands that it is important for the people of his school district to understand the challenges the teachers, staff and administrators face in ensuring a safe learning environment for students.
If you follow the school attorneys’ misguided logic, the federal education privacy law would prevent Iowa City school officials from announcing each May how many seniors will graduate from West High School and City High School, because that detail would be a compilation that originates on the confidential student records of each senior.
One of the issues being considered this year by the Iowa Legislature - and nationally, too - is what should be done to deal with the growing number of incidents involving out-of-control students who cause damage and injuries in school classrooms.
The Des Moines Register reported earlier this year that the number of teacher and staff injuries in the Des Moines Public Schools has risen from 226 to 425 in the past five years.
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The unwarranted secrecy by officials of the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City districts keeps residents from fully understanding what confronts teachers as the number of students in a classroom increases at a time in our history when violence and behavior problems among young people is growing.
Without reliable information from school administrators, the public is forced to rely on rumor, rather than facts, to know how big the problem of out-of-control children in the local schools is and what leads to these worrisome incidents.
The secrecy also prevents the public from evaluating whether seclusion rooms or other forms of restraint are being used for appropriate reasons - as a last resort to prevent children from causing injury or damage. Or are these special rooms and restraint practices being used improperly for discipline for lesser, non-violent infractions?
Iowans should hope officials in the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City districts rethink their ill-advised secrecy. And if they don’t, lawmakers and voters should step in and let the officials know that their reasons for refusing to share this information are unacceptable.
Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. IowaFOICouncil@gmail.com