Heads must roll at the Waukee Community School District

Words cannot describe my anger as I read this front-page article from Sunday's Des Moines Register, about a family who are suing the Waukee school district over excessive time-outs the staff forced on their daughter, who has autism.

Waukee is the fastest-growing city in Iowa. I knew that the school district had some growing pains, but I had no idea its leadership was so poor as to allow this kind of conduct, let alone defend it.

Join me after the jump if you have the stomach to read about sickening treatment of special-needs kids in a public school.

Click the link and read the whole Des Moines Register story if you can stand it.

8-year-old Isabel Loeffler was repeatedly subjected to long stretches in a timeout room at Walnut Hills Elementary School; she was in timeout

for 100 sessions between September and December 2005, for as many as five sessions in a single school day, and sometimes for an hour or more.

The teachers observed her continuously during these timeouts. She was supposed to sit in “body basics” (cross-legged on the floor) and remain perfectly still for five minutes. If she moved at all, the clock was reset and she had to try again to sit still for five minutes.

During this period, Isabel's behavior started to become more aggressive. So her parents and the school staff agreed to videotape part of one school day on December 7, 2005. About 20 minutes into the tape, Isabel refused three times to keep working on a reading assignment. She was sent to timeout and kept there for three hours, until the end of the school day:

Almost immediately after the door is shut, Isabel folds her legs and sits quietly. She clearly knows from past timeouts that she has to prove she is ready to focus on her next activity by sitting cross-legged on the floor. Her learning plan calls for five minutes.

Isabel says she has to go to the bathroom. A teacher, watching through a small window, says no. School staff later testified that students sometimes use the bathroom as an excuse to escape punishment.

Before the required five minutes are up, Isabel gets restless and crawls across the floor. The teacher starts the timeout all over again.

Isabel returns to the proper sitting position, called “body basics,” at least 10 times for two to four minutes.

Whenever she fidgets, the clock stops and she has to sit for another five minutes straight.

At times, Isabel looks like she's playing. At times, she looks uncomfortable. She struggles to open the door. She pounds on her head with her fist. There are sounds of children going about their school day outside her concrete room.

By the end of the day, she has wet her pants, has lost her temper and has gone ballistic, her father said.

That night, the teacher, the school psychologist and Principal Deb Snider watched the video together, brainstorming what to do better the next day, including shortening the length of time Isabel had to sit to prove she was ready to go back to her studies.

The Loefflers watched the video later and decided to pull Isabel out of the school.

“What kind of killed us is that she tried so hard to get out of it,” Doug Loeffler said in an interview. “She's sitting on the linoleum and then they say, 'Oh, you moved,' and you can hear her sigh. She was literally physically incapable of getting out of that. It became counterproductive.”

How many typical eight-year-old children could sit cross-legged on the floor, perfectly still, for five full minutes?

For that matter, how many adults who are not experienced in yoga or transcendental meditation could do that?

It looks like the staff at this school were more interested in keeping Isabel out of the classroom than in teaching her. If the purpose of the time-out was to make her calm down and get ready to go back to the class, why was Isabel punished for fidgeting a little when she was obviously trying hard to sit in “body basics” so she could get out of the room?

Doug and Eva Hoeffler immediately removed their child from that dreadful school and filed a complaint against the Waukee Community School District and Heartland Area Education Agency. The case was heard over 10 days, and the administrative law judge found in their favor.

In addition to the excessive timeouts, the judge was troubled by the school staff's use of the “hand over hand” technique:

Hand-over-hand is a prompting technique in which a teacher guides a student's hand until she understands, for example, how puzzle pieces fit together or how to write a letter of the alphabet.

At first, if Isabel refused to complete a worksheet, her teachers would help her do it using hand-over-hand.

But as time passed, they used the technique if Isabel refused to do any task.

Isabel resisted, and it became a physical battle.

The teachers' notes show they used up to three staff members to hold her in her chair while a fourth teacher forced her hand to color. In at least four episodes in November 2005, hand-over-hand continued for more than an hour while Isabel insisted throughout that she could color by herself, records show.

“Even if this worked and produced some sort of good for the child, we would have opposed it,” Sytsma said during the hearing. “The girl is being exposed to aggression. She is learning aggression and she is reacting to what is happening to her.”

Following the administrative hearing, the school district would have been forced to come up with a different education plan for Isabel, but the Loefflers have moved to California in the meantime. Consequently, Waukee can go on using the timeout rooms as they have done in the past. The district was not ordered to pay any penalty.

This was no isolated case. If you click the link and read through the comments below the online version of the article, you'll find several people who can attest to the excessive use of timeouts in Waukee and other public schools in Iowa. This comment was particularly poignant:

I worked with Isabel for two years and know she is a loving, happy and smart child. Her interaction with the school in question was not a positive one. Initially, when she was removed from that environment, she was very timid and afraid to make a mistake. It took quite some time to get her to come out of her shell. Throughout all of this, I never had a problem with her hitting, biting, spitting or displaying any other aggressive behaviors. That's not to say I never had to guide Isabel's actions, however, I did it with respect to her and I believe this made all the difference. I adore Isabel and wish her the best of luck in California!

The printed version of the Des Moines Register contained a sidebar that I can't find on the website about another boy with a developmental disability who has attended Waukee elementary schools. This boy's grandmother, who is his primary caregiver, said he spent more than 130 hours in the timeout room from kindergarten through second grade.

He would be put in there for minor infractions such as saying he didn't want to do an assignment. Then he wouldn't be let out until he sat perfectly still on the floor for five minutes. Lying down was not an option.

On several occasions, the grandmother said, this boy couldn't finish the time-out by the end of the school day, so the next day, first thing in the morning, before he even had a chance to do anything right or wrong, the teachers would put him in the timeout room.

This boy is now at a different elementary school in the Waukee district, and the grandmother is happy with the teaching assistant who has been assigned to him.

A group of parents is reportedly helping advise the district on new procedures for dealing with special-needs children, but those parents declined to comment for the Des Moines Register story on Isabel Hoeffler.

Meanwhile, the Waukee staff and administrators who are quoted in this article continue to defend the way Isabel was treated.

Fortunately, I don't live in the Waukee school district. If I did, I would raise hell with the school board and make sure my kids never went near any of their schools. Heads should roll over this disgraceful episode.

  • Public Schools in Des Moines are horrible

    I also was very angry when I read this article. This poor little girl did nothing to deserve the abuse she suffered. I hope the family got reimbursed for their legal expenses.

    When my daughter was in 7th grade at Callanan, she talked to a guidance counselor who called her a “drama queen” to her face. My daughter was acting out and did something at school one day that got her suspended for a week. It was not a proud moment for any of us. But what happened next was the most unbelieveable experience I have ever been through.

    My daughter went to a skating rink and saw a young man that she had previously played hockey with. The boy, who attends school in a different district, skated by my daughter and said,”I heard what you did” in school. My daughter, knowing that they had no friends in common, asked how he knew about the story. “My Aunt told me.” His aunt was the guidance couselor, who went to a family reunion a few weeks before and told her whole family, using my daughter’s real name, what happened at school.

    The next day, I talked to the then-principal Vince Lewis (now the principal at North High in Des Moines). He expressed concern and said he would talk to the counselor. It never happened. I had to wait until the next fall to speak to the new principal. Then I had to go over her head to the district. Then I had to threaten to sue the district. Then the counselor “retired.” I am still sure I should have sued the district and the counselor for the breach in professional confidentiality.

    There are more stories like this out there then I have time to read. It’s pathetic. There are good teachers out there, but they are outnumbered by the lazy and unethical ones. It’s sad…and just think how bad kids in other states have it.

    • that is an upsetting story

      I would be outraged if that happened to my child. I’m surprised, because Callanan has a pretty good reputation (I have friends whose kids went through there after attending Perkins or Greenwood elementaries).

      I am glad that you were persistent with the principal and the district. It’s sad that someone had to threaten a lawsuit before action was taken.

      I talked to a friend whose son has a developmental disability and was also in Waukee public schools. He had a similar experience with timeout rooms–never for as long as three hours, but several times for more than an hour, with unreasonable demands in terms of what he needed to do to get out of the room.

      It really looks like the Waukee schools just don’t want the hassle of dealing with special-needs kids. I have a friend who works in early intervention who knows of many Waukee families who end up putting their kids in other schools in the Des Moines area.

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