Smith: Seclusion rooms modern-day dunce caps


(File Photo) The Iowa City School District sign is seen off of North Dodge Street on Tuesday, September 6, 2016. School start times have been adjusted over the past two years in the district. (The Daily Iowan/Joseph Cress)

Growing up, I would ask my mom why we didn’t live in a big city like Chicago. Every time I would get the same answer: Iowa was a safe place to raise children with a good education system. Unfortunately, that seems not to be the case anymore.

Iowa City public schools for years have been using 6-by-6-foot padded rooms with one window to hold children as a form of punishment, called seclusion rooms. The Iowa Department of Education found that the seclusion rooms used in Iowa City classrooms violates the state and federal laws, and they will no longer be used in classrooms starting in the next school year.

In the meantime, the existing seclusion rooms will remain in use for some special-education students, as indicated in the individual education plans. Parents are required to be informed when their children are sent into a seclusion room, and teachers need special permission to keep a student in one longer than an hour. When the Department of Education reviewed 455 cases in which seclusion rooms were used, it found lack of proper documentation. Teachers also placed children in these rooms when they didn’t want to take the time to deal with them.

Not only is this a legal issue, it is also a developmental issue. When children are placed in seclusion rooms, it takes away from time spent learning in the classroom, humiliating them in front of their peers. This method of punishment is comparable to old-school dunce caps. A dunce cap was a pointed hat that a disruptive student would be forced to wear, sometimes for minor infractions, such as asking too many questions or trying to make friends laugh. At least when punished with the dunce cap, students could still listen to the teacher and attempt to follow along. With seclusion rooms, students are completely removed from the classroom. If students spend too much time in the seclusion rooms, which they have no choice about going into, they can be required to make up the missed class time. The dunce cap seems less harsh than these seclusion rooms, and they haven’t been used in American since the 1950s.

We should make progress in our classrooms, not return to tactics that hurt a child’s mental health and ability to perform in school. It is hard enough for children to grow up in an age in which they can see they weren’t invited to a friend’s birthday party over Snapchat. Now we want to make them feel even more like an outsider by excluding them from class? No.

School is supposed to be a safe learning environment, not a jail. Since 2015, the Iowa City School District has been slowly but surely removing seclusion rooms from classrooms. All cities in Iowa (Council Bluffs, Sioux City, Des Moines have all used seclusion rooms) need to follow in its footsteps so that Iowa can once again be a safe place to raise children with a good education system.

RELATED: Seclusion rooms on the way out, superintendent says

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