GAO report calls into question nationwide seclusion and restraint data

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) -- After the I9 investigative team found errors in eastern Iowa school districts reporting of instances of seclusion and restraint, a new federal report suggests it is a problem nationwide.

That report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says federal data on how often schools use seclusion and restraint on children is wrong.

Districts can legally seclude or restrain students during violent outbursts.

I9's reporting, dating back to 2017, found Iowa City and Cedar Rapids schools were not following guidelines on using seclusion and restraint on students.

The GAO report notes the federal data compiled on seclusion and restraint is vital for civil rights monitoring and oversight.

In the case of the Cedar Rapids Schools, it wrongly reported to the U.S. Department of Education it was not using seclusion or restraint at all, when In fact, records showed staff was doing it hundreds of times each school year. Cedar Rapids Schools says it has fixed their reporting problems.

The new GAO report found 70% of districts nationwide and 59% of Iowa schools reported not using seclusion and restraint, however, many of those districts did have documented cases, including at least three Iowa districts.The report does not identify those districts.

The GAO made four recommendations to fix reporting issued which includes clarifying reporting rules to school districts, following up with districts that report zero incidents, actively monitoring compliance and correcting past data errors.

The report also criticized the U.S. Department of Education for continuing to publish seclusion and restraint data it knows is wrong. It says that could undermine the ability to catch abuses.

Democratic Congressman Dave Loebsack had this to say about the new report:

“As an educator for over 20 years, I do not believe that restraints and seclusion should be used in the classroom. In places where restraints and seclusion are used, reporting and transparency on how widely they are used is vital information that all schools must report. The findings of the new GAO report are damning, and I continue to believe all students would benefit from positive behavioral interventions. Ultimately, the best course of action would be to discontinue the use of seclusion rooms or restraints.”

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley had this to say about the new report:

“Children deserve a safe learning environment. Events that disrupt that safety need to be immediately and accurately reported,” Grassley said. “Without transparent reporting, no solutions can be identified. That puts children at risk. The recent GAO report confirms what I’ve suspected – that there has been systematic underreporting of circumstances involving restraint and/or seclusion of students. The Department of Education must take decisive steps to address reporting problems and increase overall transparency surrounding this issue.”

I9 also reached out to Republican Senator Joni Ernst, who along with Grassley, called for an investigation after our report on false reporting aired, for comment but we are waiting to hear back.