The Iowa Department of Education is holding events across the state taking input on the controversial practice of isolating students in so-called seclusion rooms. Much of the discussion at a meeting in Johnston Wednesday focused on how to define threatening behavior in the classroom.
“We’ve had cases where individuals were placed in seclusion and restraint because someone ripped up a piece of paper,” said Nicole Proesch, general counsel at the Department of Education. “And so what we’re really trying to do here is figure out what’s an imminent threat of harm to an educator and what’s enough.”
Seclusion rooms in schools are small enclosed spaces. Many schools send students to them when they are angry or are acting dangerously. They are not meant to be used for discipline or to enforce rules.
The Department of Education began reviewing rules for the rooms after a petition was filed in 2017 by several groups including the ACLU of Iowa. They complained that some districts were using their rooms inappropriately, particularly for minority and disabled students.
A recent proposal, which was rejected by the State Board of Education in August, said students should only be removed to the rooms when they threaten “serious injury” to themselves or classmates. That definition was criticized by teachers who said it was too subjective.
It continued to receive push back from educators in Johnston who said they often face personal injury on the job. “We’re really putting teachers between a rock and a hard place if we’re saying, ‘Okay you can’t do this,’ but at the same time we expect you to maintain safety for all kids,” said Eric Neessem, director of student services at Norwalk Community School District.
Advocates continue to push for a definition that ensures the rooms will only be used as a last resort.
“How do we make sure kids aren’t being put in seclusion rooms, in restraint, for minor incidences?” said ACLU policy director Daniel Zeno. “That doesn’t mean you don’t address minor incidences. You do. You just don’t put kids in seclusion rooms for those things.”
Education officials are also taking another look at size requirements for seclusion rooms and how quickly guardians must be told when their kids are placed in them. More meetings will be held across the state Thursday in Cedar Rapids and next week in Pocahontas, Cedar Falls and Ottumwa.