Cedar Rapids schools will stop using seclusion rooms after district reached settlement with Justice Department over disciplinary practices

Fourth grade students at Alexander Elementary in Iowa City participate in their afternoon yoga lesson, October 2017. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced on Monday it had reached a settlement agreement with the Cedar Rapids Community School District regarding what it determined to be the school district’s “discriminatory use of seclusion and restraint against students with disabilities.”

The Civil Rights Division began its review of whether CRCSD disciplinary procedures and practices violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in October 2020. According to a statement from the district, “DOJ has not identified to CRCSD any specific incident, complaint, child, or school as being the source of the ongoing review.”

Seclusion rooms are used in school districts around Iowa, and in other states. They are supposed to be used as a last resort, when a student’s behavior is uncontrollable.

A review of CRCSD records by the Gazette published in 2020 revealed “Cedar Rapids elementary school students were held in seclusion rooms or physically restrained 237 times in the first month of the 2019-20 school year … This was more than 10 times a day and more than four times as much as in the first month of the 2015-16 school year.”

According to the DOJ, its investigation “found that the school district inappropriately and repeatedly secluded and restrained students with disabilities as early as kindergarten in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The department concluded that instead of meeting the needs of students with disabilities that affect their behavior, the school district subdued them through unnecessary restraints and improper confinement alone in small seclusion rooms, sometimes multiple times in one day and often for excessive periods of time. As a result of these practices, some students lost hundreds of hours of instructional time. The investigation also found that the school district did not end seclusion where students showed signs of crisis or trauma, or when there was no longer any threat of harm.”

As part of the settlement agreement, CRCSD “will be discontinuing the use of seclusion in all buildings and programs, effective 30 days from the date of the agreement,” the district said in its statement on Monday. It “will also be making significant changes to limit the use of physical restraint and to rethink how student behavior is analyzed and responded to.”

A temporary seclusion room in an Iowa City classroom in 2016. ICCSD forbade the use of seclusion rooms in 2017 after formal complaints were filed against the district. — photo by Kat Litchfield

In the settlement agreement, DOJ said that throughout “the investigation, the District fully cooperated with, and worked in good faith to respond to, all of the Department’s requests for information.” According to CRCSD, it provided investigators with “over 10,000 documents” and facilitated “numerous interviews of District and building-level administrators and staff, and site visits to several District schools.”

In addition to ending the use of seclusion and limiting physical restraint, CRCSD agreed to implement the following changes as part of the settlement agreement.

• Report all instances of restraint and evaluate if they were justified

• Offer counseling and other services to students who are restrained

• Adopt policies and procedures to assess suicide risk, prevent suicide and self-harm, and implement immediate crisis intervention for students who threaten or engage in self-harm

• Designate trained staff to collect and analyze restraint data and oversee the creation of appropriate behavior intervention plans

• Deliver appropriate training and resources to help schools implement the agreement

• Hire two new administrators to oversee schools’ use of restraint, if any, and ensure the district’s compliance with the ADA

“Students with disabilities should not be subjected to discriminatory and abusive seclusion and restraint practices that deny them equal access to education,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Civil Rights Division said in the DOJ statement announcing the settlement. “When schools isolate and unlawfully restrain children with disabilities, rather than provide them with the supports needed for success in the classroom, they violate the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Our agreement puts the Cedar Rapids Community School District on a path to significant institutional change and reform.”

As part of CRCSD’s statement on the settlement, Superintendent Noreen Bush said, “I’m proud of the hard work our staff have already done before and throughout this investigation. CRCSD welcomes the opportunity to continue to improve our practice to support our students.”

According to the superintendent, the district will be providing parents, staff and students more information over the next 30 days on how the district will implement the changes contained in the agreement.