In December 2016, Iowa attorney Mary Richard filed a complaint with the state’s Department of Education opposing the use of seclusion units in schools. The units are located within special education classrooms and used to hold children with autism and other disorders in “time-out.”
The seclusion units are generally built of plywood, measuring six by six feet. They are lined with horse stall mats and underlayment made of recycled tires, which gives off a strong rubber odor, the complaint states. They have dark, sometimes black interiors, and some have a hole cut into the ceiling for ventilation and light. Their use is not restricted to emergency situations in which a child poses an immediate threat of physical injury to themselves or to others.
“The presence of these seclusion rooms inside special education classrooms, serves as a threat of incarceration for children assigned to these rooms, and is likely to suggest to some of them that they are people who may expect incarceration in the future,” the complaint argues.
The Iowa City Community School (ICCS) district built 19 such units at 14 elementary schools. There are also four units at the district’s three junior high schools and three units at the district’s high school.
A five-part investigative series into the use of seclusion units by the Gazette found elementary school students were locked in for “kicking, biting, hitting, and throwing chairs, books and computers,” but also for “non-violent acts like refusing to trace in pencil, stepping out of line at recess, and pouting.”
Evidence suggests improperly isolating and restraining children can feed a vicious cycle, where harsh punishment leads to trauma that leads to behavioral issues treated with more harsh punishment.
“The [United States Department of Education] and a number of professional organizations have warned schools that restraining and secluding a child can directly or indirectly result in the child’s physical and psychological injury or death,” the complaint argues. Seclusion can “trigger strong emotions, including humiliation, fear, loss of control, anxiety and anger, that erode the child’s mental health, decrease the child’s ability to manage behavior, and thereby increase the child’s problematic behavior.”
There is virtually nothing that can “undo the trauma, after-effects, and memory of wrongful treatment suffered by a child who has experienced seclusion that was not reasonably calculated to provide the child with an educational benefit.”
Data from the 2013-14 school year also shows the seclusion rooms were disproportionately used against non-white students. While only 19 percent of the school district is African American, roughly one third of the students physically restrained and half of the students isolated were black.
Additionally, seclusion units were used on 23 children who did not have individualized education plans—all of whom were African American boys.
The presence of these units within special education rooms and the lack of a policy prohibiting their use in non-emergency situations places children at a higher risk of being placed in isolation for their behavior.
“A reasonable parent generally does not ask to see the location where a child may be located during a time-out,” the complaint notes, “for reasons that include the fact that a reasonable parent is very unlikely to expect a time-out to take place inside a plywood unit lined with foul-smelling black horse stall mats and flooring underlayment made from recycled tires.”
The district does not tell parents with children in special education that time-outs might take place in a seclusion unit. Parents are only allowed to see the units upon request. Journalists and members of the public are routinely denied the opportunity to see the seclusion rooms because the ICCSD classifies them as “confidential spaces.”
The complaint demands seclusion be prohibited for non-emergency situations and they call for the district to be more transparent and use the term “seclusion” when a student is placed in a room and prevented from leaving, not “time-out.”
Additionally, the complaint calls for parents and guardians to be individually notified of where time-outs take place and if and when their child is secluded. Teachers and para-educators must receive annual training and certification in alternatives to restraint and seclusion.
Finally, the complaint calls for seclusion units to be replaced with calming areas and rooms that “do not visually resemble prisoner isolation cells.”
The Iowa Department of Education has responded to the complaint and is pursuing an investigation.