DES MOINES, Iowa — Photos keep pouring into Channel 13 from local teachers showing classrooms destroyed, and fresh bruises and scars on the educators’ arms and legs. Parents in Winterset recently attended a standing-room-only school board meeting to voice their frustrations with disruptive and violent classroom behavior. Marshalltown Community School District has lost 29 teachers since January. That’s compared to 17 last year. District leaders said one of the reasons, according to a survey, is student behavior.
When Ruth Ann Gaines was named 1998 Iowa Teacher of The Year, she couldn’t have imagined the day students would be rushed out of their classrooms and forced to stop learning, while one student is allowed to throw tables and chairs, hit the teacher, and ruin supplies. The practice is used nationwide. It is commonly referred to as a “room clear.” “How is one (teacher) going to handle that?” Gaines wondered. “That’s insane!”
Gaines isn’t just an educator. She’s an Iowa state lawmaker and mother to a son with special needs. He is an adult now, but Gaines remembers when her son had outbursts at school, and she can’t understand why policies have changed. “(Teachers or administrators) cleared him out. He was the one that was taken out of the classroom. I think (that was the right thing to do) because once (the other) kids are taken out of the classroom, that totally disrupts everything that they’re comfortable with. Kids need comfort. Kids need stability even if they’re not special needs kids. I mean, ‘special needs’ need it more, but to remove all the kids and let that (one student) destroy, how does that change behavior?”
Channel 13 learned that, in many cases, the plan all but guarantees bad behavior. We obtained the written protocol for a central Iowa elementary school child who tries to “…escape the teacher’s demand or work task… and to gain attention.” The child will “…pinch, hit, kick, bite, and throw objects at people…” The plan calls for the child to complete a short work task, followed immediately by a highly preferred activity. Teachers claim those are code words for the student being allowed to play games on an i-Pad. The teacher is instructed to give “frequent high-fives, smiles, clapping, and verbal praise.”
“We should be working in changing the behavior of the child. And I don’t think this necessarily changes,” said Gaines. “It sounds like it reinforces (bad behavior).”
Experts say it wouldn’t be the first time one of these behavior plans got it wrong. “You can accidentally reinforce negative behaviors,” said Dr, Stephen Mandler. Mandler is the chief medical officer at Orchard Place, an organization that serves the mental and behavioral health needs of 10,000 children and teens in Central Iowa. Mandler has helped craft countless behavior plans, and what he hears concerns him. “Whenever I find out (something counterproductive) is happening, I contact the teachers and the school and I say this is not working the way it’s intended.”
Along with the full-time job of managing the behavior plan, the teacher is ordered to coach all of the other children in the classroom on how to ignore that particular child. Dr. Mandler acknowledged, “It’s pretty hard to do.” He said it’s also hard getting people in positions of power and influence to listen. “I’ve had this fantasy of being able to meet with some key legislators and key decision makers, and the problem is you can’t explain this (issue) in a sound bite.”
Rep. Gaines serves on the Iowa House Education Committee. After watching our stories, she started asking questions and learned that lawmakers knew explosive behavior was a major problem during the last legislative session. She said there was a plan to study it, but the bill did not advance. Rep. Gaines said she learned the reason is that lawmakers couldn`t agree on who should be invited to educate them about it.
There are currently 4,660 of the above-described behavior plans (Individualized Education Plan) for the roughly 150,000 K-12 students served by Heartland Area Education Agency. The total number of behavior plans is unknown because there are different types, and the agency does not track all of them.