I9: Seclusion rooms, no set standards in Iowa (Part 1)

Published: Nov. 15, 2017 at 4:23 PM CST
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Students in the midst of a violent outburst can be locked alone in a small room. These seclusion rooms are perfectly legal and school districts across the state have them. However, an I9 investigation found schools are inconsistent in using them and some aren't following the laws for them.

State guidelines say schools should only restrain or seclude students for the purpose of safety or to protect property. I9 visited about a dozen different seclusion rooms to see how districts are using them and we found a lot of differences and a lack of oversight.

Iowa City School superintendent Stephen Murley is overseeing a major change in district policy. Last week, Murley announced in an email to parents the district would remove its seclusion rooms.

“It's our obligation, our responsibility as educators to make sure that we look at the full gamut of options that are available in that we consider those that are least restrictive,” said Murley.

What sparked that change was an investigation from the Iowa Department of Education that found Iowa City was over-using its seclusion rooms. That came out to 455 times in 2016. Sometimes the use was for minor infractions, like "stepping out of a line of students, having 'attitude,';… (and) foul language…." And most of the time, it was pre-K through third graders shut in these rooms. Those younger students also averaged the most time spent in isolation at just shy of 30 minutes each time.

Iowa City is far from alone. I9 conducted a survey of 23 different school districts in our viewing area and found nearly two-thirds said they use seclusion rooms.

All Iowa Code requires is that seclusion rooms are free from hazards, of reasonable size and have sufficient light and ventilation. Of the roughly dozen seclusion rooms we visited in three school districts, we found no two were the same. Some had padded walls, doors, and floors. Others didn't. Some were dim and some were bright. Some were hidden away, others in full view. One was the back of a classroom and at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids we found two kinds of rooms under the same roof. Some rooms, from either the lights of ventilation fans, even hummed.

The US Department of Education requires every few years school districts report each incident of seclusion and restraint. The most recent year districts were required to submit those numbers was for their 2013 data. In that year federal records show the districts we surveyed used seclusion or restraint 2,514 times. That comes out to 14 times per school day.

In the Solon Community School District there are no seclusion rooms.

“What we're trying to do is trying to figure out what the problem is. Not the behavior itself but the thing that's causing the problem,” said Solon’s special education director, Matt Townsley. “It could be that they're trying to escape something. It could be that they're trying to seek some attention for an adult. It could be there trying to seek some attention from a student. And so our goal has been to try and figure out what that specific thing that they're seeking or escaping from is.”

To do that, Solon uses school psychologists, has staff trained in de-escalation methods, and put what he calls "safe spaces" in classrooms.

“It (safe spaces) could be a bean bag chair they go sit on, it could be behind a partition, it could be a place in the room that's just their safe space that they go to,” said Townsley. “If for whatever reason that doesn't work, what we've done is, we have cleared out the room for the other students that are in there so that the student can de-escalate.”

College Community School district uses seclusion. But Director of Student Services Cheryl Kiburz tells us their mission is similar to Solon's. Staff also receive extensive de-escalation training, and, she says, the rooms are a last resort.

“Seclusion rooms are not a tool to change behavior. They really are there as a response to a crisis,” said Kiburz. “Our goal is really to focus on a system of prevention and support so that hopefully we are avoiding the crisis in which physical restraint or seclusion would need to be used.”

Kiburz’s methods appears to be working. The district's data shows use of seclusions and restraint in College Community has been falling.

Overall incidents of seclusion and restraint are down from 680 in the 2012-2013 school year, to 152 last year. Kiburz says if there is a school district that is showing the opposite trend that would be a cause for concern.

Enter the Cedar Rapids Community School District. The district told I9 it had 1,419 cases of seclusion and restraint between the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school years, and those numbers are continuing to rise. However, federal data shows zero incidents for Cedar Rapids. The US Department of Education told us superintendents are required to certify those numbers adding that a district giving them the wrong number is violating federal requirements.

The Cedar Rapids Community School District declined to talk to us on camera about its use of seclusion rooms. I9 also asked for an explanation of the gap in the federal data and so far, they've not answered those questions. A spokesperson for the district did send us a written statement saying a "task force on seclusion and restraint" was formed in August, and they'll have recommendations that will be presented to the school board in February.

This is not the only example of weak oversight. In part 2 of this report, we will look into why Iowa City was investigated even though other districts use seclusion much more often.