Iowa school district promises to end seclusion rooms use

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The second largest school district in Iowa improperly and repeatedly shut students with disabilities in seclusion rooms and restrained them in violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, federal authorities said Monday.

The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and the federal prosecutor for the Northern District of Iowa announced a settlement with the Cedar Rapids Community School District in which school officials have agreed to end the use of seclusion rooms and reform its restraint practices.

The district based in Cedar Rapids, about 120 miles (193.1 kilometers) east of Des Moines, also promised in the settlement agreement to improve staff training on how to address and de-escalate students’ disability-related behavior through appropriate measures.

A justice department investigation found that the district subdued students with disabilities through unnecessary restraints and improper confinement in small seclusion rooms, sometimes multiple times in a day and often for excessive periods of time.

The investigation covered the three school years ending in 2019, 2020 and 2021. Investigators found 4,968 incidents where students were secluded, restrained or transported from class and more than 83% of cases involved a student with a disability.

The Cedar Rapids district has an enrollment of more than 16,850 students making it second largest behind Des Moines Public Schools.

A letter from the Justice Department to Cedar Rapids Superintendent Noreen Bush dated Monday indicated that district had used seclusion and restraint as a substitute for appropriate educational or behavioral support despite state regulations and the district’s own policy against such practices.

“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,” the Justice Department said in a statement announcing the settlement agreement which was signed by Bush on Thursday and by federal agencies on Monday.

Some students lost hundreds of hours of instruction time.

“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,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

Bush said the DOJ did not identify any specific incident, complaint, child or school as being the source of the review that began in October 2020.

“I’m proud of the hard work our staff have already done before and throughout this investigation,” she said in a statement. “Over the next 30 days, the district will be in communication with staff, parents, students, and other stakeholders about the changes on the horizon.”

The district cooperated with the investigation and in May began discussions with federal officials to settle complaints about the use of restraints and seclusion, the Justice Department said.

The agreement says agreed upon changes will be made within 30 days including the dismantling of all seclusion rooms.

Physical restraint may be used only when a student is engaging in behavior that presents an immediate and imminent risk of substantial bodily injury to the student or others and as a last resort to all other interventions.

The district also agreed to provide counseling and other services to students who were restrained.

The district also has agreed to hire two new administrators to oversee schools’ use of restraint and ensure the district’s compliance with the agreement and federal law.

The Iowa district is not the first to reach an agreement on the use of seclusion and restraints in schools, the DOJ said.

In December 2021 the agency said it reached an agreement with the Frederick County Public School District in Maryland prohibiting the use of seclusion and in December 2020 a similar agreement was reached with North Gibson School Corporation in Princeton, Indiana.

In November 2020 the Iowa State Board of Education adopted new rules that limited educators to using seclusion and restraint of students as a last resort and only when there’s a threat of bodily injury. The change came after years of criticism and pushback on use of seclusion rooms in schools.

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