After two years of work, the Iowa Board of Education unanimously voted down — but didn’t entirely scrap — proposed revisions to seclusion and restraint rules this summer. The new rules would have pulled Iowa from the sparse ranks of states that allow students to be secluded and restrained even without a threat to someone’s personal safety. 

When the board voted down the proposed revisions to Chapter 103 in August, they cited concerns the proposed rules were “too burdensome” on educators. Since then, the state Department of Education has hosted six meetings at Area Education Agencies across the state to garner feedback. Eighty-nine people participated in the meetings, and a handful more sent written comments. 

The Iowa Board of Education will look at a new proposal Wednesday. If the board supports the amended version, the state will file its intent to amend Chapter 103, restarting the 108-day timeline to move the rules to the administrative rules committee, said Nicole Proesch, legal counsel and administrative rules coordinator for the Department of Education, in August. 

According to the notes taken on behalf of the Department — and provided to the Quad-City Times — there are three key changes in the new revisions: parental notification, room size and the use of the phrase “serious injury” as a threshold for intervention. 

Parental notification

The initial resolution proposed parents must be notified within 10 minutes of the start of an incident, a window educators balked at during open hearings. During the public comment in Creston, one participant — the notes do not name people and only rarely designate them as a parent, student or teacher — said staff “do not want to have to notify in the heat of battle.” 

The new rules state parents need to be notified “as soon as practical after the situation is under control, but no later than one hour or the end of the school day, whichever occurs first.” 

Parents and staff in the meetings were split about how tight that time frame should be, but broadly agreed was it would be “inappropriate to not contact during the same day,” notes from the Heartland meeting say. At the session at Grant Wood, it was noted it could be a “trigger” for parents to not trust the school if they hear about the incident from their child, rather than a teacher or administrator.

One participant at the Central Rivers meeting, labeled as a student, said parents should be notified immediately or as soon as possible because “there were times he was secluded or restrained, and he didn’t tell his mom and neither did (the) school.”  

One question unanswered in the notes at the Pocahontas meeting asked the goal of parental notification.

“If it is done well that is one thing — as a parent, if I know my child is in seclusion, that’s a helpless feeling,” one participant said. “Is the goal awareness? Is it to get help from the parents?” 

Room size

Initially, districts were to be given two years to make sure their seclusion rooms were 7-feet by 10-feet — big enough to keep kids from “spidering” up the walls and risking injury. The new rules grant districts five years to enlarge their rooms to a 7-foot square. 

“Why can’t people just be reasonable?” one person at the Pocahontas meeting asked. “Why do we need room sizes?” 

In Grant Wood, someone said they would rather districts “spend money on services for challenging behavior,” not to modify rooms. 

‘Serious injury’

Using the word “serious” in the rules should be “off the table,” one participant in Pocahontas said. 

For educators, in particular, the word “serious” was strongly opposed. Those who attended the meetings said the qualifier “has to go” and was “too high of a bar.” 

“As a teacher in a classroom, if I have to debate this, I will back off,” one Heartland attendee said. 

In Ottumwa, one person went so far as to say “the definition of ‘serious’ in the school setting will ultimately be determined by a lawsuit.” 

The new rules replaced “serious physical injury” with “bodily injury.” Iowa is one of five states that allows seclusion and restraint to be used when no one’s personal safety is threatened, something either proposal would change. Twenty-nine states have banned seclusion and restraint as disciplinary or punitive actions. 

None of the states that border Iowa use “serious” as a qualifier in their codes for corporal punishment in schools. Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota all allow seclusion and restraint in the instance of an “emergency” or if there’s a “physical threat.” South Dakota, Nebraska and Missouri put it on the local districts to create policies.  

Other questions and next steps

While many educators spoke in favor of trusting teachers’ judgment, others — mostly parents — called for more accountability for districts. 

“Districts, if left to interpret Chapter 103 on their own, will almost always choose the option that is ‘easiest,’ ” said Jessie Witherell in a written comment. She said she was a parent in the Iowa City School District, and urged the Board to adopt the rules “as originally written.” 

In the public meetings, some noted that seclusion and restraint were “not always used as a last resort,” and that they’d like to see “greater accountability for misuse.” 

A repeated issue the new proposal doesn’t address is putting a cap on how long a student can be secluded. 

“The total cumulative time a student can be allowed to be secluded in a single day day should have a cap on it in order to protect the emotional and physical well-being of the student and the student’s right to (free appropriate public) education,” said Glenn Fortmayer, executive director of special education for Council Bluffs, in her written comments. 

If the student is secluded or restrained for more than 15 minutes, the student shall be provided with a break, unless it would endanger anyone or if it’s addressed in the student’s written, approved individualized education plan. If the seclusion or restraint is taking over 30 minutes, there are stipulations that must be met to continue, including written approval from an administrator, but there’s no set limit for how long a student can be held.

Even if the Board of Education supports the rules Wednesday, there will be more chances for public comment. If the Board proceeds, the next public hearing will be at 11 a.m., Jan. 7 at the Grimes State Office Building in Des Moines. Written or oral comments can also be submitted to Proesch, the department’s legal counsel.

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