Iowa City schools will get rid of controversial temporary seclusion rooms

Seclusion room in Iowa City. — photo by Kat Litchfield

The Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) plans to remove all the temporary seclusion rooms from its schools, according to an email sent to district parents by ICCSD Superintendent Stephen Murley. The temporary rooms are box-like 6-by-6-foot wooden structures with padded walls used to isolate students. Seclusion rooms are only supposed to be used as a last resort, when a student’s behavior is uncontrollable.

ICCSD’s use of the rooms received a great deal of public attention after Coralville attorney Mary Richard filed a complaint with the Iowa Department of Education (IDE) over the district’s approach to seclusion.

“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.

Richard noted “The group that ended up in seclusion most often was kids from preschool to third grade,” according to IDE data covering the period from December 2015 to December 2016. “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,” she wrote.

Richard’s complaint led to an investigation by the IDE. On May 30, the agency ruled the way ICCSD 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 room in Iowa City. — photo by Kat Litchfield

In the email sent on Tuesday night, Murley told parents,

The District is committed to discontinuing the use of temporary seclusion rooms (sometimes referred to in the general public as “isolation boxes”) within our schools by the beginning of the 2018-19 school year. The District recognizes the role of restraint and seclusion in providing a Free and Appropriate Public Education for all students in a Least Restrictive Environment within our schools and is seeking ways to improve our practices. The District also recognizes that students with a formal safety plan developed in coordination with parents/guardians may have needs that differ and the District will work with parents to meet their student’s needs.

The email said, “The District has been reviewing each site and the student needs within each school using the recommendations of the Restraint and Seclusion Task Force,” but does not explain what those recommendations are or how they will be implemented.

The district’s Seclusion and Restraint Review Committee presented a set of recommendations during a meeting on Oct. 23. Among the recommendations are regular training of school staff “in de-escalation strategies” and ways of recognizing implicit bias in disciplinary actions.

The published documents from the meeting also call for improving the forms used to report the use of seclusion rooms and continued research on best practices, but do not address the rooms themselves, beyond suggesting “Removal of rooms if not needed.”

According to Murley’s email, “The District has completed the work to eliminate 7 temporary seclusion rooms within our schools and we plan to eliminate the remaining temporary seclusion rooms throughout the District by the beginning of the 2018-19 school year.”

Little Village emailed questions to ICCSD about the district’s plan, but did not immediately receive a reply.

ICCSD Board President Ruthina Malone, who has been sharply critical of the district’s use of seclusion rooms, told Little Village via email, “I’m pleased to see that the district is taking action and moving in a direction with deliberate steps in order to get rid of the padded, plywood boxes that were being used as seclusion rooms.”

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