Iowa teachers are not only overwhelmed by the amount of violence and disruptions they’re facing in classrooms by students, but they’re also afraid of the financial and workplace repercussions if they respond to it, said state Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton.
After speaking with educators and parents across the state amid growing media reports about violence in Iowa classrooms, Sinclair, chair of the Senate Education Committee, proposed a bill that she said is aimed at mitigating and rehabilitating behavioral disruptions through the use of “therapeutic classrooms.” These are specialized spaces in school districts that offer smaller class sizes and more individualized attention.
But Senate Study Bill 3080 also addresses what school employees can do if violent behavior from a student occurs. It provides funding for standardized training and employee protections from disciplinary action by a school.
It also limits when a school employee can clear a classroom, a method that is used to keep students safe if someone is behaving violently.
“Teachers are being assaulted, frankly, because we have students in places that aren’t the best fit for them,” Sinclair said during an interview with Iowa Capital Dispatch. “They’re living with a fear of being sued. They’re living with a fear of being reprimanded in their workplace and actual physical harm coming to them.”
For Iowa teachers, more protections against disciplinary action
Teachers are faced with moments when, “I have this forty-pound kindergartner, but I’m afraid to touch him because I don’t want to be sued,” Sinclair said.
The bill is meant to reassure them that “… they do have liability protection and also providing some dollars for training staff to make sure they’re doing it right,” Sinclair said.
Corporal punishment is unlawful under Iowa Code, but school employees are currently allowed to make physical contact with a student if it is “reasonable and necessary under the circumstances,” such as injury to another person.
Sinclair’s bill adds that school employees may physically touch a student if they are “relocating” someone who is not listening to directions or causing a distraction.
It also would give school employees more power and protection if they chose to restrain or move a student, adding that physical contact with a student isn’t considered corporal punishment if “in the opinion of a reasonable person at the time of the incident,” the contact was necessary to protect others.
While Iowa Code already protects school employees from criminal and civil liabilities related to physical restraint, the bill also would give immunity to school employees from disciplinary action by their employer or the Iowa Department of Education if they make physical contact with a student to stop violent behavior.
Employees would be required to report assaults or violent incidents to their school’s principal, but they would also have the option to go to the Iowa Department of Public Safety if they believed a situation rises to that level. Those reports would become an annual report for the Iowa Department of Education and the Iowa Legislature.
In May, the suspension of a substitute teacher at Southeast Polk School District resulted in backlash from the community after she allegedly took a student by his arm to guide him back to his seat, resulting in disciplinary action, according to the Des Moines Register.
Therapeutic classrooms and standardized training for teachers
To decrease classroom disruptions, the bill calls for a “therapeutic classroom incentive fund,” that provides grant money for Iowa school districts who want to start their own specialized room through the Iowa Department of Education. The fund can be comprised of state, federal and private donations.
Sinclair pointed to the Winterset Community School District as an example of where a therapeutic classroom is already in place.
Funding for the classroom will be weighted depending on the class size of the therapeutic room with a maximum of 15 students. The bill establishes two years of grants for school districts with ongoing state cost-per-pupil offsetting costs after the initial startup fund.
”They will learn better, but all of the other students will also learn better,” Sinclair said.
The bill also calls for $500,000 to be allocated for the Iowa Department of Education to create standardized guidelines regarding classroom behavior, student restraints and training to educate school employees on how to create the “least restrictive environment,” for students, according to the bill.
There are several portions in the bill that would be beneficial for Iowa school employees, including the increased workplace protections if someone makes physical contract with a student, said Melissa Peterson of the Iowa State Education Association, which works on behalf of school staff and administrators. She said school employees never want to place their hands on a student, but it would be unfair if they had to think twice about protecting themselves or other students.
But Peterson she’s unsure if creating a grant program for therapeutic classrooms is the best way to enact that program. She also said that there are concerns that individualized education programs, which are provided for students with special needs, would still meet federal guidelines under the new bill.
“There are some interesting components that could be helpful,” Peterson said. “I appreciate them starting the conversation.”
It is expected to move to a Senate subcommittee for consideration, Sinclair said.
”We’re trying to meet the needs of all the kids in the classroom to the one that’s not thriving,” Sinclair said. “I want them to learn and clearly if they’re stressed enough in a regular classroom that they’re causing that much turmoil, they’re not learning. They’re not thriving.”