Iowa schools work to curb classroom violence, disruption with state grants

By: - July 22, 2021 4:04 pm

Some Iowa schools have received state grants to develop therapeutic classrooms for students with behavioral or mental health issues. (Photo by yang miao via Unsplash)

A new school will open this fall in the Eastern Allamakee Community School District, but only two students are enrolled. 

Under a grant program from the Department of Education, the district plans to convert a defunct middle school building into Kee Connect, a facility with two new therapeutic classrooms that can accommodate up to 20 students who need additional mental health or behavioral support.

“I think people are transitioning to understanding that there are needs beyond academics that schools need to serve,” said Sarah Updegraff, principal at the Kee High School and Middle School. “Especially as we’re coming out of the pandemic, people are seeing that there are other roles a school fulfills, and this is one of them.”

The new center is the result of a therapeutic classroom grant from the Department of Education. The Iowa Legislature in 2020 passed a classroom violence bill that addressed when and how a student could be removed from the classroom. Teachers told legislators they struggled with violence in the classroom, dealing with disruptive and dangerous assaults. Education lobbyist Melissa Peterson told the Des Moines Register that over half of Iowa teachers had witnessed violence in the classroom. One Iowa teacher told lawmakers she resigned from her job because of the anxiety from chronic classroom assaults

In addition to introducing new rules on “classroom clears” and other crisis intervention, the bill established a $1.6 million fund for the creation of therapeutic classrooms for those students who could not safely remain in class.

Students at Kee Connect will be split into two classrooms: One for kindergarten through sixth graders, the other for seventh through 12th graders. The center will also employ a behavior interventionist, a social worker and a therapist. The goal, Updegraff says, is supporting students until they are able to return to the classroom with their peers.

The Department of Education awarded grants to six school districts for the 2021 – 2022 academic year:

  • Ames Community School District: $325,215
  • Clinton Community School District: $108,405
  • Eastern Allamakee Community School District : $216,810
  • Hinton Community School District: $108,405
  • Mount Pleasant Community School District: $325,215
  • Washington Community School District: $542,025

The Eastern Allamakee district, which serves the town of Lansing and surrounding areas, is one of six Iowa districts to receive the grant. School districts may use the funds to create separate learning spaces for students who cannot behave or focus in a general education setting.

The Clinton Community School District is taking a more focused approach. District Student Services Director Rhea Wright said Clinton will use its $108,405 grant to create a new classroom just for second-graders at Jefferson Elementary School. Jefferson is a “higher need” building, with nearly 80% of K-5 students classified as having a low socioeconomic status. One in five students are chronically absent, meaning they have missed more than 18 days of the school year.

Wright said the district plans to use the grant over the course of three years.

“We want to show commitment, we want to make an impact,” she said. “We really want these kids to be successful and phase out of needing behavioral services totally by the end of their time in this.”

The new second-grade classroom will serve at most seven students: up to five who are already receiving special education, and up to two students who are not in special education but who require intervention. The students will have access to group and individual therapy, as well as additional food, resources and comfort items.

“We have to take care of the whole child,” Wright said.

District administrators across Iowa emphasized that the goal for the therapeutic classrooms is to return students back to traditional classes. Special Education Director Deani Thomas said the Ames Community School District will actually be closing its offsite behavioral needs classrooms this year. Instead, administrators plan to keep students who need behavioral support in the same building as their peers.

“Learning is a social thing,” Thomas said. “If you bring kids offsite, even though sometimes you need privacy and space from other kids … learning becomes more difficult.”

Beyond funding physical classrooms, administrators said the state money would be used to better train teachers about dealing with social and emotional difficulties.

Jefferson Elementary School will convert this space into a therapeutic classroom for the upcoming school year. (Photo courtesy of Principal Theresa Shultz)

The Washington Community School District will use its $542,000 grant to expand the Navigating Emotions and Stress Through Teaching (NESTT) program. Washington district administrators said NESTT is a series of incremental supports for students, from emotional education for every child to more intense intervention for individuals who need it. The grant will be used to provide professional development for teachers and to help hire NESTT teachers to supplement the role of a guidance counselor.

School-Family Liaison Beth Dehogues said the grant allowed the district to build up initiatives they had already been planning.

“This grant was a huge piece of being able to fill in where, previously, we were trying to spread too thin with our school counselors and with our special education staff and with our at-risk staff,” she said.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Reporter Katie Akin began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.