Guest Columnists

Ban seclusion rooms in Iowa City schools

The seclusion room which can be used to defuse disruptive or dangerous behavior from special education students is shown
The seclusion room which can be used to defuse disruptive or dangerous behavior from special education students is shown at Horn Elementary School in Iowa City on Thursday, May 19, 2016. Carmen Dixon, special services director for the Iowa City Community School District said of the room: “It’s used as a last resort when a student is a safety risk to themselves or others.” (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

I am writing in regard to recent Cedar Rapids Gazette articles about the use of seclusion boxes within the Iowa City school district.

These plywood boxes are called isolation or seclusion rooms and are located in schools throughout the district. The schools use them for general and special education students alike. When a student is placed in one of these boxes, their parents are told their child was sent to “time out.” In reality, the children are put into blackened plywood boxes for undetermined amounts of time, for reasons that have included such simple acts as pouting and getting out of line.

I am appalled that Iowa City schools have intentionally kept parents from knowing about the boxes and how they are being used on their children. I am horrified to realize nonverbal disabled students are forced into them with no voice to tell their parents what was done to them at school.

The federal Department of Education strongly discourages their use, and banned them from being used in hospitals and institutions. If parents had such boxes in their homes, they would surely face child abuse charges. There are mounds of research data and specialized training for humane ways of dealing with a child who is acting out. This training is readily available and offered to school districts, if the school district administration is willing to provide continual de-escalation education to its staff.

I am incredulous that the Iowa City Special Education District Administrators and school superintendent defend this depraved treatment of students when other options are readily available. The Federal Department of Education has provided school districts with alternatives to restraint and seclusion. U.S. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan has stated, “As many reports have documented, the use of restraint seclusion can have very serious consequences, including, most tragically, death. Furthermore, there continues to be no evidence that using restraint or seclusion is effective in reducing the occurrence of the problem behaviors that frequently precipitate the use of such techniques.”

It is shocking to realize in 2016 that our elementary school students are treated similarly to terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay. There simply is no call for this treatment of any student, for any reason.

Iowa law is purposefully vague on this issue. The state Department of Education leaves it up to each school district to decide whether these boxes will be allowed and to create, with parental involvement, policies regarding their use. It is alarming that even within this loosely defined state statue, the ICCSD is not even meeting the bare minimum requirements in regards to seclusion rooms.

Eight areas are identified as noncompliant with state and federal guidelines:

1. The area of confinement should be free of hazards.

2. Continuous adult supervision is required.

3. The district board of education may adopt policies and procedures regarding the use of physical restraint or physical confinement.

4. Restraint and confinement shall be used only as a last resort and only when the child is at risk in harming themselves or others. Restraint and confinement shall not be used as disciplinary tools.

5. All school employees shall receive periodic training in positive behavior interventions and supports.

6. Parents and students are to be notified at least annually of the district policies in regards to restraint and confinement.

7. The school must document alternative measures taken before use of restraint and confinement.

8. Attempts to notify parents of the restraint and confinement need to happen the same day, followed by a written report within three school days.

What Iowa City school administrators have created is in no way what the Iowa state statutes for seclusion intended. They are not quiet, comfortable spaces for a child to regain composure when they are overwhelmed. There is nothing therapeutic about them. They are correctional, solitary confinement-style boxes used for disciplinary measures. They are lined with recycled car tire material and off gassing is extreme in these closed solitary confinement spaces.

With the use of these boxes, district administrators are not fostering an environment of innovation and progress. They are instead strengthening the well-documented school-to-prison pipeline and guaranteeing psychiatric trauma for students forced into them.

Considering that this box travesty is not the only special education failure of current Iowa City school administrators, and that the district still is under state censure for its gross misconduct in its handling of special education reporting, I am dumbfounded as to why Superintendent Stephen Murley last month was given a two-year contract extension with a hefty raise.


How horrible does it have to be for marginalized, general and special education students in this district before top administrators finally are held accountable by the school board? The school board has abdicated its responsibility to district students and parents by not creating sound policy regarding the presence of seclusion boxes.

I recommend that every family in the district which has a child with an IEP, a 504 or any kind of behavioral plan, to use the sample letter located at the Wrights Law link at to protect their child from being put in barbaric isolation boxes. It now is the only safeguard parents have and it will pave the way for future lawsuits against the district for its use of these instruments of torture.

Parents and concerned citizens of Iowa City are calling for the immediate removal of these boxes/rooms/closets from all school district buildings.

• Heather Young, of Iowa City, has been a special education parent advocate for 25 years. Comments:

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