Rep. Mary Mascher introduces bill on seclusion and restraint in Iowa schools

State Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, introduced a bill this week that would establish a task force to look at the use of “restrictive procedures, including seclusion” in public schools. Seclusion and restraint are currently allowed under Iowa law.

There are 16 seclusion rooms in Iowa City schools (13 in elementary schools) and 11 in Cedar Rapids (eight in elementary schools), the Gazette reported this week. They are used to isolate students who are a danger to themselves or others, according to the Iowa City Community School District.

What would this bill do?

Mascher’s bill, HF 598, would create a task force to examine the use and impact of seclusion and restraint. The task force — made up of at least two parents (at least one having a child with an individualized education program) and two legislators each from the state house and senate, in an advisory role — would review current data on seclusion and restraint in Iowa schools, look at positive behavioral interventions and conflict prevention training programs and, depending on their conclusions, recommend changes to the Iowa Department of Education’s rules and guidance and the Iowa Code. The group would have to submit their findings by January 15, 2018.

“I think any additional pressure in holding the Iowa DOE accountable is important, especially in our current local political climate. But I worry that it may suffer the same fate as a previous bill proposed by Senator Bolkcom,” Kat Litchfield, a district parent and doctoral student in the University of Iowa College of Education, told Little Village in an email. “I hope that the proposal, at the very least, raises the awareness of parents who were previously underinformed concerning the use of restraint and seclusion in our schools.”

How did this all begin?

Mascher received an email March 31, 2016 regarding seclusion and restraint, written by Litchfield, also current programs coordinator for the Iowa Center for Human Rights. Litchfield saw seclusion rooms during a tour of Grant Wood on March 30, 2016 led by the district’s former homeless liaison, Stephanie Van Housen (this tour contributed to Van Housen’s firing.) Litchfield took pictures of the rooms and shared them, along with her reaction, in an email to colleagues. That email was forwarded to Mascher.

Seclusion room in Iowa City. — photo by Kat Litchfield

“All of you know that I have spent some time in our prisons. I have seen a solitary confinement cell. I have seen restraint harnesses. I do not exaggerate in telling you that we are manufacturing prisoners right here in Iowa City. We can talk all day about the school-to-prison pipeline, it’s a catchy phrase, but tonight I saw it right here in our privileged city,” Litchfield wrote.

Mascher forwarded the email to superintendent Stephen Murley, City Manager Geoff Fruin, Mayor Jim Throgmorton and Mayor Pro Tem Kingsley Botchway. Their email exchanges were included in a report on Van Housen’s termination, available in the documents from a Sept 6, 2016 hearing on whether to reinstate Van Housen. In those emails, Mascher said she understood the need for the rooms for safety, but asked questions regarding their use. Murley argued that the district was operating the rooms in full compliance of state law.

Reports that the rooms were being used to disproportionately isolate black students and students with disabilities, inconsistent reporting and public pressure brought further attention to the issue. The school board established a committee to investigate the use of seclusion and restraint, and school board members Chris Liebig and Phil Hemingway have called for a ban on the rooms.

Seclusion room in Iowa City. — photo by Kat Litchfield

What does the current law say about seclusion?

Seclusion is currently legal in Iowa Schools under Chapter 103. “Reasonable periods of detention” are excluded from the ban on corporal punishment, as long as any physical restraints used are for safety or therapeutic purposes. Restraint and confinement must be a last resort and may not be used for minor infractions. Schools must document each incident, including alternative interventions that were tried and future plans to address students’ behavior, notify parents the same day and share documentation with them.

Among other provisions, periods of confinement must be kept to under an hour or the school’s average class period, whichever is shorter. Seclusion rooms must have “reasonable” dimensions and “sufficient” light, “comfortable” temperature and “adequate” ventilation (none of which are specifically defined in the law), as well as adult supervision and breaks for “bodily needs.”

Employees must receive documented, periodic training in the safe use of restraint and confinement and alternative interventions. Schools must inform parents and students of Chapter 103 and relevant school policies on at least an annual basis.

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