Monday, November 20, 2017
Under state law, the answer is apparently yes in some places. A Time.com story reports that "Iowa is one of only five states that allow seclusion or restraints when there’s no physical threat, according to the ACLU. Twenty-nine states have banned the use of seclusion or restraints to discipline or punish a child." Apparently, Iowa City Schools had made more than an infrequent practice of it. It had sent "students to seclusion rooms for having a bad attitude, using foul language or being out of instructional control, among other reasons. The [state education] department reviewed more than 450 incidents involving more than 60 students were sent to these rooms over a one-year period starting in December 2015." The district now says it will discontinue the practice.
A handful of seclusion room stories have broken in other schools over the past year or two and districts have similarly been quick to change their practices once the stories came to light. Part of the pressure comes from the fact that many of the students subjected to this treatment have or many have disabilities, which brings federal law and limits into play.
Unfortunately, a corrective response is rarely quick or forthcoming at all for regular education students subjected to harsh school discipline. Writing of school exclusion (rather than seclusion) in Ending Zero Tolerance, I wrote:
Over the past two decades, school discipline has grown increasingly harsh and impersonal. Many schools and states are willing to exclude—temporarily and permanently—students for almost any type of behavior. Even when students’ behavior poses no real danger to school and involves the type of immature mischief parents expect of normally developing kids, schools dig in their heels and insist that they must banish students. Local communities and policy advocates have pushed back and managed some important successes in recent years, but the seriousness and scope of the problem demands a systematic long-term check.
I argue that courts are the check of last resort. "[C]ourts must reengage on issues of discipline and enforce students’ rights. Courts cannot simply abandon students to school boards and the political process. Too often, both schools and politicians have shown themselves to be irrational and willing to sacrifice students in the expedient pursuit of other goals."
But even when courts engage, some schools cannot imagine another way of handling kids. Zero tolerance, seclusion rooms, corporal punishment and the like are examples of schools, at best, throwing their hands up in despair or, at worst, believing courts are the niavely meddling.
The Iowa City School plans moving forward do not inspire confidence. "It’s unclear what method or practice will be used in place of the rooms. [Superintendent] Murley said in his email that 'the district recognizes the role of restraint and seclusion in providing a free and appropriate public education for all students in a least restrictive environment within our schools and is seeking ways to improve our practices.'"
Part of the answer lies in understanding that student misbehavior is not just misbehavior. It is often a warning cry for help in some other area of the child's life or education. As I write here:
Normal human development can explain a lot of misbehavior. Younger children, for instance, lack the capacity to always behave; no matter the rules, elementary school students occasionally talk out of turn, push each other and disrupt class. Older students sometimes push boundaries in other, more serious, ways. Making and learning from these mistakes is simply part of growing up.
Disabilities, academic struggles, poverty, homelessness and family crises can also affect behavior. For students in these situations, misbehavior is often a sign of unmet needs – not a character flaw.
Until school officials begin to understand misbehavior for what it is, our discipline problems will continue to plague us and stories of this sort shock us.