The controversy over Iowa schools’ disciplinary practices will linger on after a state board declined to take action this week.
On Thursday, the state Board of Education unanimously voted against finalizing a recommendation to adopt stricter rules for school officials’ use of physical restraints and seclusion rooms. School administrators criticized the proposal, arguing that schools need more flexibility in implementing their safety and discipline policies.
The delay is disappointing, because this is nothing short of a human rights issue. Bodily confinement of any person should be a last resort to prevent serious harm. That is especially true for children, who may suffer severe mental and emotional effects from physical discipline.
Seclusion rooms in Eastern Iowa schools usually are used when students become violent, but there are exceptions. A 2016 investigation by Gazette journalist Erin Jordan found examples where students were confined for refusing to trace in pencil, stepping out of line at recess and pouting.
In some cases, putting children in isolation may escalate the situation, documents obtained from local school districts suggest. The Gazette uncovered reports of students screaming, kicking walls and making threats while they are in seclusion rooms.
It’s true that children experiencing behavioral health challenges can pose threats themselves and others, and seclusion is sometimes an appropriate way to manage potential danger. That’s why it’s so important for the state to have strong and specific rules governing their use.
The rules under consideration this week would have established stronger standards for physically restraining and secluding students. It would have required those measures only be taken in cases where it’s necessary to ensure safety, and where less-restrictive alternatives would not be feasible.
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The new rules also would have required school representatives to attempt to contact a student’s parents within 10 minutes of being placed in seclusion.
Those should be universally accepted standards. We strongly disagree with the school administrators who say such a policy would be too difficult to implement, even with the two-year compliance period the state offered.
It has been almost three years since The Gazette published its initial investigation about seclusion rooms. Two full school years have come and gone since the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa formally filed a petition seeking changes to state rules.
Nevertheless, a new school year will start in a few weeks, and our inadequate rules for student discipline persist.
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