Staff Editorial

Iowa schools' seclusion practices demand public scrutiny

A room that formerly was used for a seclusion room in the functional skills suite at Iowa City High School in Iowa City
A room that formerly was used for a seclusion room in the functional skills suite at Iowa City High School in Iowa City on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

In the first month of school, Cedar Rapids elementary school students were held in seclusion rooms or physically restrained 237 times. The Gazette’s Erin Jordan reports that this number has quadrupled since 2015, when the number of students held in restraint or in seclusion rooms was 10.

But the Cedar Rapids Community School District is refusing to release the reasons why.

Despite releasing the data in 2015, the Cedar Rapids school district now is arguing that releasing the details behind the use of seclusion rooms — even without names, grades or schools — will violate student confidentiality. The Iowa City school district makes the same argument in its refusal to release any information.

But Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, told Jordan, “If they remove name, grade and school, there is no confidentiality being broken.”

In Iowa, seclusion rooms have proved to be an ineffective and disturbing classroom tool. And summary data will help identify trends and answer high-level questions such as, is the increase a statistical outlier? What types of scenarios is seclusion being used in? Is staff training adequate or could other interventions be more effective?

A 2016 review of the use of seclusion rooms in Iowa classrooms, also written by Erin Jordan, revealed stories of “students in seclusion sobbing, calling out for their parents and, in one case, shouting “I want to see a dog!”

Students also used extreme actions to try to get out, such as kicking the door, taking off their clothes and threatening suicide.”

When ProPublica published a similar review about the use of seclusion rooms in Illinois, the response was swift and immediate: Gov. J.B. Pritzker banned their use within days.

Congressional leaders in Illinois now are asking for a federal ban.


In Iowa, the response has been more temperate, with the State Board of Education proposing new rules on student seclusion. These rules will face final consideration in 2020, an effort years in the making. By refusing to release any context around the practice, the public — including parents — has no way to meaningfully help craft policies based on the collective data.

The Gazette’s Editorial Board twice has called for banning the practice of using seclusion rooms. But if, as the school district argues, the rooms are a necessary tool for teachers, then the public deserves absolute transparency regarding how they are being used.

A refusal to release the data violates the public trust. It’s the opposite of protecting children. Refusing to end the practice of seclusion rooms and refusing release the data about why they are punished, subjects children to a disturbing and ineffective punishment with absolutely no oversight.

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