Iowa and Virginia Weigh Rules on Seclusion and Restraint

By Valerie Norville

State boards of education in Iowa and Virginia considered new regulations this summer intended to curtail abuses in schools’ imposition of seclusion and restraint as means of managing student behavior and to improve schools’ reporting their occurrence. These agenda items are the latest round in efforts across the country to address practices that have been the subject of high-profile reports of abuse and that disproportionately affect students with disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Education (ED).

Restraint and seclusion are intended to deal with student behavior that poses imminent threat to the student, classmates, staff, or in some cases property. Yet schools nationwide have been accused of questionable uses, some of which led to student injury or death. In Iowa and Virginia, news reports of children placed in seclusion for excessive crying or put behind makeshift barriers sparked public outcry and subsequent legislative action.

In 2012, ED published a resource document that included 15 principles to guide policies on seclusion and restraint. One such principle: “Restraint or seclusion should never be used as punishment or discipline, as a means of coercion or retaliation, or as a convenience.” The principles also cover notification of parents, school personnel’s documentation of incidents, training of personnel, and the need for continuous visual monitoring of students placed in seclusion.

A rule that received approval by the Virginia State Board of Education reflects these principles. The General Assembly enacted laws in 2015 and again in 2019 that required the state board to adopt regulations consistent with state and federal guidance. The state’s department of education sought extensive stakeholder input over four years and reported “sharply divided views” among the parents, advocates, and educators who commented on earlier drafts. The board approved new regulations on July 25 that prohibit prone, or face-down, restraints of students and clarify terms so that reasonable physical contact with students and time-outs, for example, are excluded from definitions of restraint and seclusion. The board’s discussions on the rules focused on how to ensure adequate staff training and follow-up with students and parents after the incidents.

In early August, the Iowa State Board of Education rejected a similar rule to clarify definitions of “physical restraint” and “seclusion,” underscore when the practices should not be used, and spell out when schools should notify and debrief parents and when staff should file reports of occurrences. Their vote followed school administrators’ voicing concerns that the proposed rules overly burdened educators. Staff at the education department pledged to seek additional public input before revising the rules.

Every two years, ED releases school-reported data on use of the seclusion and restraint as part of its Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). In a June 18 letter to House and Senate leaders, Jacqueline Nowicki, director of education, workforce, and income security issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, wrote that districts are underreporting incidents and therefore the CRDC data do not provide an accurate picture of the practices’ prevalence. In the latest report of school year 2015–16 data, more than half of school districts in 39 states reported no incidents of restraint or seclusion, including large districts such as New York City and Fairfax County, Virginia.