Listening post at the library to discuss school seclusion rooms, accessibility on Saturday

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Listening post with school board member Phil Hemingway

Iowa City Public Library — Saturday, July 8 at noon

Seclusion room in Iowa City. — photo by Kat Litchfield

Iowa City Community School Board Member Phil Hemingway will be holding a listening post in Meeting Room A at the Iowa City Public Library on Saturday, July 8, from noon to 3 p.m. The session will focus on two high profile issues: the use of seclusion rooms and how the district is complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Seclusion rooms — also known as quiet rooms, safe rooms and timeout rooms — are used to confine students when a school staff member decides that a student may be a danger to others or is creating a significant disturbance. The rooms are only supposed to be used as a last resort, when a student’s behavior is uncontrollable.

State law requires seclusion rooms be of “reasonable dimensions.” In Iowa City Community Schools, the rooms are box-like 6-by-6-foot wooden structures with padded walls. There are no locks on the doors, which have windows so the student may be watched. Schools are required to contact a student’s parents or guardian after a student has been confined. A report on why the student was confined and how long the confinement lasted is supposed to be filled out after each incident.

The use of the rooms garnered public attention following a complaint filed with Iowa Department of Education (IDE) by Mary Richard, a Coralville attorney. “A reasonable parent generally does not expect that a time-out (takes) place within the harsh conditions of a plywood box lined with foul-smelling black horse stall mats and flooring underlayment made from recycled tires, and is therefore unlikely to ask to see a seclusion unit,” Richard wrote in her December 2016 complaint. Following the complaint, the department reviewed the district’s use of seclusion rooms. According to the IDE, the district used seclusion rooms 455 times between December 2015 and December 2016.

“The group that ended up in seclusion most often was kids from preschool to third grade — 277 times,” Hemingway said. “I have a hard time understanding why a preschool child has to be put into a padded cell, because that child is supposed to be an imminent physical threat to the instructor or themselves.”

Seclusion room in Iowa City. — photo by Kat Litchfield

On May 30, the IDE ruled that the way Iowa City Community School District was using seclusion rooms violated state and federal law. The IDE directed the district to review and revise its procedures for using the rooms.

“Seclusion is a tool that we’ve abused, and it needs to be taken away,” Hemingway said. “But that’s my personal opinion. I want to hear from the community.”

Hemingway has equally strong opinions on the other topic of the listening post.

“We’ve got to seriously address the accessibility issues at our schools,” Hemingway said. “The ADA was passed more than 20 years ago, and for us to be still addressing these things in 2017, well, shame on us.”

The issue came to the fore recently when parents expressed concerns over whether a new playground under construction at Shimek Elementary would be ADA compliant, and accessible for students with limited mobility.

“Shimek playground has really brought it into focus for us,” Hemingway explained. “But it’s much broader than that. Our school district has been way behind in getting our buildings ADA compliant.”

Hemingway hopes the less formal setting of Saturday’s listening post will lead to greater community input on the issues.

“Some people can’t make it to a school board meeting, or find speaking in front of the board to be intimidating,” Hemingway said. “So this is good option. And it gives me a chance to listen in a setting where I won’t be expected to spout my opinion on things.”

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