Iowa lawmakers seek ways to address violence in schools

Iowa lawmakers seek ways to address violence in schools

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DES MOINES — Educators say they welcome legislative policy changes to help deal with increased reports of violence in K-12 schools, but many speakers at a public meeting Wednesday evening said what is most needed is more funding to bolster staff and lower class sizes.

“No one is going to sit here and say that this bill is the solution, but it’s a step that our schools believe is very, very important,” Emily Piper, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association of School Boards, told a House Education subcommittee working on a multifaceted bill aimed at addressing student behavior that disrupts classrooms.

Two companion bills — House Study Bill 598 and Senate Study Bill 3080 — are moving through the legislative process that provide incentives to schools looking to use “therapeutic classroom” and other options to address increased reports of classroom violence.

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Along with offering specialized spaces in school districts with smaller class sizes and more individualized attention, the legislation provides guidelines for actions school employees can take to address violent student behavior and funding for standardized training and employee protections from disciplinary action by a school.

“This bill is about providing a safe classroom environment for teachers and for students and for making sure that all children get the most appropriate education possible,” Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, told members of the Senate Education Committee, which voted 8-5 Wednesday to advance SSB 3080 to the Senate debate calendar.

But that’s not the case in many Iowa schools, said Mark Felderman of Professional Educators of Iowa, who surveyed his members and found that 52 percent said they had experienced or personally witnessed violence in their school.

“That’s a lot. That’s amazing,” he told the House subcommittee.

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Also, more than 65 percent of the association’s member “have had room clears in their schools,” Felderman said. “We feel like that is unacceptable.”

Melissa Peterson of the Iowa State Education Association, said her members report similar classroom experiences that “behavioral issues in the classroom are something that we are dealing with more and more frequently.”

Peterson said the bills under study provide a little reassurance that “somebody in that building is going to have their back” when they make decisions dealing with unruly students.

But, she added, the legislation “is attempting to address a symptom. It is not addressing the problem.”

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Peterson said one reason for the escalation of violence in classrooms relates to the lack of adequate qualified staff in school buildings to address behavioral issues, increasing class sizes due to insufficient funding and a lack of community services for children that spill into the education setting.

Margaret Buckton, who represents both rural and urban school associations, told legislators the problem “wasn’t created by lack of funding, but it’s compounded by it.”

Sen. Jackie Smith, a Sioux City Democrat who worked for an area education agency for 34 years, said the problem has been around for some time in schools that have not been adequately funded, but it has risen to a point where now, “all of a sudden, we’re talking about helping our most-vulnerable kids.”

Smith said many of the changes being contemplated are positive, but she expressed concern there were provisions that granted immunity for educators in situations involving physical contact with students.

Under Iowa law, corporal punishment is prohibited, but there are provisions that allow school employees to have physical contact with a student if it is “reasonable and necessary under the circumstances.”

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SSB 3080 provides that school employees also may physically touch a student if they are “relocating” someone to defuse a disruptive situation and it enhances protections for those employees in situations where a student is moved or restrained in the course of protecting others.

“The liability protection only extends so far as the teacher is acting within state and federal laws and the school’s policies and procedures,” said Sinclair, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. “We aren’t just going rogue in the classroom and letting bad behavior by a teacher be allowed any more than we would allow bad behavior by a student.”

Rep. Cecil Dolecheck, R-Mount Ayr, chairman of the House Education Committee, said he expected the five-member subcommittee would meet again before finalizing the bill they take to the full committee.

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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