EARLHAM, Iowa -- The only window is painted on the wall, and an Earlham teacher is outraged its being used to discipline a special needs student.
The Earlham School District started using a seclusion room this year, it’s a place for special needs students to cool down after an outburst; it has concrete floors, concrete walls, and no window.
“I was horrified, my stomach just dropped and I felt like throwing up all day, I was nauseous, I didn’t know what I could do, it’s the best they have but I just felt for that little boy” said Anne Mendoza, a teacher at the school.
The school is small, elementary, middle, and high school students take classes there. The seclusion room is in the basement of the nearly 100 year-old building.
“It smells incredibly bad down there, it’s musty, some students say they get headaches from being down there, it’s dungeon-like, they painted it so they tried to make it a little nicer but it really is just an old cement closet with a cracked floor and one hanging light” said Mendoza.
According to Iowa code, however, that’s perfectly fine. By law seclusion rooms have to have “reasonable dimensions” “sufficient light” “adequate ventilation” and “comfortable" temperatures.
“It doesn’t necessarily state an actual size, it doesn’t say if it has to be natural lighting or what the lighting has to be” said Attorney Nathan Kirstein.
Kirstein is an attorney with Disability Rights Iowa, and says there isn’t a state inspection process to make sure rooms meet those guidelines.
“There’s nothing necessarily in here that says hey you need to have a certificate signed off by the Iowa department of education in order to use the seclusion room” said Kirstein.
The Department of Education says they only inspect the seclusion rooms if a complaint is filed.
“I think the use of seclusion rooms as behavior intervention is a large problem in Iowa” said Kirsten.
The school’s superintendent Michael Wright declined an on-camera interview but says the child just started acting out over the last year and they didn’t have a seclusion room in place previously. Wright says they are currently planning to build a more welcoming seclusion room over the summer. Wright says the room being used currently has been used as an office for P.E. teachers and other students take classes in the basement.
Wright says there are two faculty members who are with the student while he’s inside, and if they have to leave for safety, they monitor the student through a camera. Still, those who work on behalf of special needs students say there’s a bigger issue here.
“I think if we’re asking the question ‘what can we do to make these rooms better?’ I think we’re asking the wrong question. I think the major question we need to be asking is ‘when are we using seclusion and if it’s appropriate?’” said Kirstein.
Mendoza understands the school is working with limited resources.
“If you’ve got someone whose hurting themselves or hurting other people or who will destroy property, what do you do? When there’s not proper training in place and not funds to quickly put together a great room, that’s what you end up with” she said.
Kirsten says the nearly ten year-old code regulating seclusion rooms needs updating, specifically in how and when it's used. Kirsten would like the code to specifically say seclusion should be used in emergency situations only, and define those situations, rather than the broad language Iowa uses now.