Shining light on voices trapped in the dark

Behind the story:

Prior to November 2017, “seclusion room” was a meaningless term to both myself and the majority of the student body. Though I was initially hesitant to tackle a subject without prior knowledge, the article’s impact solidified my passion for journalism and truly demonstrated the immense power one story can have.

My co-writer and I were introduced to the subject by our photographer, who had heard horror stories about these rooms from a classmate. Following hours of research, we discovered that these rooms were padded boxes designed as a behavioral discipline practice that utilized illegally within the ICCSD numerous times.

In order to gain further insight on this issue, I interviewed numerous sources, including district officials, secluded students, and medical professionals. I interpreted explanations from both “sides” and conveyed information between parties, researching discrepancies when necessary. While the story was intended to be a four page spread, my Editor-In-Chief promoted it to the cover story.


After the article’s release, district administration called in students that had been secluded in their youth and apologized for the trauma inflicted upon them. The district also reiterated their commitment to phase out temporary seclusion room usage, implementing  a PBIS-related system to encourage good behavior in its place.

This story was originally published in the Dec. 22, 2017 print issue of the West Side Story. It received a “Best of SNO” award and first place in the “in-depth news” 2018 IHSPA category.


“Alone” by Anjali Huynh and Anna Brown

Throughout the ICCSD, spaces have been designated to isolate students from their peers when faculty felt their behavior was uncontrollable. However, improper use of these areas led the district to call for their removal by the beginning of the 2018-19 school year.

An eight-year-old child sits alone in a dark space with only a small window of light and no way to leave. Messages reading “KEEP OUT” and traces of vomit line the interior. They bang on the walls, but the room is soundproof, so their pleas are left unheard. Contrary to what one might think, this isn’t a juvenile detention center.

It’s a room in a public elementary school.

This space, called a seclusion room, is one method of dealing with students who are considered to have behavioral issues. A 2011-12 report by National Public Radio stated that children were placed in seclusion rooms about 104,000 times in that school year nationwide. Until recently, seclusion rooms were commonly used throughout the ICCSD as well.

“We have had some temporary rooms that have been created in order to keep kids safe from themselves,” said Superintendent Steve Murley. “Those are part of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) process that goes through special education … Iowa law says that you can seclude students in order to keep them safe or keep their peers safe, and they don’t have to be special [education] kids in order to be secluded.”

Seclusion rooms, also known as behavioral discipline rooms, are designed to protect students from harming themselves. Each seclusion room in the ICCSD is a roughly 6-foot by 6-foot wooden box with padding, one single window of light and no handle on the door from the inside.

These spaces are intended to help students with behavioral disabilities that have specific IEP plans: strategies developed by parents in correlation with the school on how to react in an instance where their child acts out. If a student does not have an IEP, these spaces are intended to be used only in severe circumstances, like if a student is physically assaulting another student.

However, the Iowa Department of Education found that around 4 percent of seclusions in the ICCSD during the 2015-16 school year were for minor infractions like stepping out of line at recess or talking back to a teacher. During this investigation, it was found that schools were misusing these rooms, not only by utilizing them in the wrong situations but also  by  leaving students in there for longer than the maximum time of around 50 minutes. Additionally, in some instances faculty did not correctly document incidents involving seclusion.

One student placed in a seclusion room in multiple instances during elementary school is Davonte Levy ’18, who vividly remembers the first time he experienced this form of disciplinary action.

“I was probably in fifth grade when I got sent [to a seclusion room] for the very first time, and I hated it,” Levy said. “They pushed me in there and shut the door and locked it. You can’t open it from the inside. They’ll block the door … It felt like I was in prison. Kids punched the door and [were] angry. They wouldn’t let you back out until you said something that pleased them.”

Levy believes that being secluded did not have a positive effect on his behavior; instead, it negatively affected his learning experience.

“I’m still mad about the [seclusion] room because it ruined part of elementary school. It took the [experience] away,” Levy said. ”I think it made things a lot worse for the kids. Sitting in the dark didn’t help kids calm down.”

Jillian Baker ’19 is another student that was isolated in elementary school for talking back to her teachers. According to Baker, rooms in which students are isolated from their peers did not stop unruly behavior, but instead made the students feel like they were being branded as troublemakers.

“[Being secluded] didn’t necessarily make me think about what I did—if anything, it just made me more upset and made me feel more isolated,” Baker said. “[It] made me feel like I was weird, and I don’t think it changed my behavior at all because even after I got out, I’d still end up back in [the seclusion room.]”

Because many seclusions occur when children are young, forms of discipline like this have the potential to affect the psychological health of students later on in life, especially if seclusion is recurring. During the 2015-16 school year, 277 out of 455 incidents where seclusion rooms were used, or 61 percent, were for kids between pre-kindergarten and third grade.

According to Dr. Megan Foley Nicpon, a psychology professor at the University of Iowa, isolating students for their behavior at a young age may send negative messages about who they are as people rather than the decisions they make.

“There’s a lot of data to show that students with behavioral problems have more depression, anxiety, lower self-concept and you have to think that it’s probably related to the messages that they’re receiving,” Foley Nicpon said. “It’s kind of a chicken and the egg sort of thing. Are they acting out because they’re told these awful things about themselves, or are they told these awful things about themselves because of their behavior? It’s cyclical, and so how do you break that cycle with kids?”

Because of this, Foley Nicpon believes that students’ poor classroom behavior could continue into junior high and high school. Memories associated with strong emotions are more vivid and memorable in young children; this results in emotional memories continuing to affect later behavior for long periods of time following the traumatic event.
Baker believes that her behavior would not have carried on had it not been for labels given to her as an elementary student.

“When teachers isolate you and label you as one thing regarding behavioral issues, or anything in general, you tend to gravitate towards the people that have the same label as you,” Baker said. “[This] is why my behavioral issues continued into eighth grade when they shouldn’t have at all.”

Baker views this labeling as harmful to students that may not be able to control their behavior. She believes that it interferes with their education and prioritizes other students’ learning over the mental well-being of those placed in seclusion.

“I do think an institution exists [that] puts kids who have behavioral issues, whether they are intelligent or not, at a disadvantage,” Baker said. “When you label somebody as a troublemaker, that gets in the way of their academic achievements … I don’t think that [teachers and administration] didn’t care about me, but I don’t think that they solved my behavioral problems in the way that would have put my interests first.”

Furthermore, students that were placed in seclusion rooms faced social isolation as well. Students sent to these rooms on multiple occasions felt alienated by their peers. This had negative effects on students’ perceptions of themselves.

“People didn’t want to be around you because they think, ‘You’re always mad … You’re always in the [seclusion] room, so why do you want to talk to us or want to hang out with us?’ I think that set a label on a kid and a person because everybody’s scared. They think, ‘I don’t want them to hurt me because they have been in the [seclusion] room,’” Levy said.

Baker also felt that being secluded impeded her abilities to make friends and view herself in a positive manner.

“Whenever I didn’t have problems with authority and I tried to make conversation with my teachers or I tried to initiate friendships, that didn’t happen,” Baker said. “I feel like whenever something didn’t work out the way it should have, I related it back to me just not being able to act right, and I remember being really upset about that because I couldn’t figure out how to act right.”

Misconduct with seclusion in the district eventually caught widespread media attention and was featured in USA Today -over the summer. Soon after, the American Civil Liberties Union spoke out against isolating students and called on Iowa to change its restraint and seclusion policies.

In a news release, Daniel Zeno, the policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa said, “Iowa must update its rules to reflect growing consensus that seclusion and restraints should not be used to discipline or punish children. Children should only be subjected to these practices in emergencies and when there are no other alternatives.”

Following a complaint filed from the Department of Education and backlash from parents, the ICCSD began to change its use of seclusion. The district hopes to prevent future misuse of these rooms by removing them altogether, or, if this is not possible, repurposing them by the beginning of the 2018-19 school year.

“As a district, we weren’t meeting the standard of care that we should when it came to seclusion,” said ICCSD School Board Member Ruthina Malone. “It was mainly based on the Department of Education’s report [that] a lot of the findings that were listed in there [were] that we were delinquent in the way we were handling a lot of our cases.”

However, the audit of seclusion rooms has led to another problem: what to do with special education students that had IEPs that depended on these rooms.

According to ICCSD Director of Special Education Lisa Glenn, students with IEPs will continue to have access to seclusion spaces as needed.

“The district will implement all IEPs as written, including those which include a safe seclusion area,” Glenn said. “When needed, the district will work with building staff to find a permanently constructed area for use in implementing the IEPs in the building … The focus of our work continues to be to improve and enhance behavior support for students at all levels, and to design high-quality individual plans for those who need them.”

As the ICCSD makes the shift to adopt new methods of handling misbehaving kids, Murley acknowledges that this may be a rough transition to make because seclusion rooms were formerly the norm within schools across the district.

“This has been in place in the district and in other districts in Iowa for a very long time … It’s not really a gradual change,” Murley said. “We’re going through some learning with this process … We’ll probably experiment with some different kinds of spaces in different schools, and that’ll be a collaborative effort with parents, so whatever safe space we create meets their expectations too.”

Other than auditing seclusion rooms, the ICCSD has taken measures to make sure staff are aware of how to correctly address misbehaving students. Administration has retrained faculty in areas where seclusion rooms are still active to ensure no further misuse occurs.

Additionally, the district is now experimenting with other methods to positively interact with students facing behavioral problems. For example, a room has been placed at Kirkwood Elementary next to the principal’s office with a table and various games to help students calm down.

“Now, instead of putting students in the seclusion room, [staff have] this safe space where they can have the student go in and de-escalate,” Murley said. “There’s room at the table where if [a faculty member] needs to have a conversation with them [or] if the student just needs some room to do their school work without being in proximity to the other kids or whatever was setting them off, they have the room to do that now.”

This method of direct communication, also known as talk therapy, is one strategy that the ICCSD plans to use to replace seclusion. This was previously effective for Baker, who believes that having a supportive adult figure in junior high helped change her views on authority.

“I had a guidance counselor that was there at North Central, and she really helped me with everything,” Baker said. “I took a step back … and realized that I shouldn’t be acting that way and that teachers were not purposefully being authoritarian figures. I learned to appreciate teachers a lot more.”

Levy acknowledges the influence of interaction and reiterates that conversation, instead of seclusion, has the potential to  change the entire educational experience of a student.

“I think teachers should talk to kids more. That’s how kids and teachers can get better connections,” Levy said. “You never know how a person’s day can be before they get to school or after school; just interacting with somebody can change everything.”

Localizing a national movement

Behind the story:

Covering local events, such as marches and rallies, is one of my favorite tasks, both as a writer and a photographer. When a Facebook event popped up on my feed announcing that two women were organizing the second local Women’s March, I immediately clicked “Going.” Because the Women’s March is such a well-known event, I knew it was crucial to do a write-up as soon as possible in order to yield the highest amount of readership. This story was published with multimedia elements only a day after the march took place.


“Charged Women’s March rallies in downtown Iowa City” was published on Jan. 21, 2018. The article received a “Best of SNO” award and won “Honorable Mention” in the IHSPA 2018 “Multimedia Story – News” category.


“Charged Women’s March rallies in downtown Iowa City” by Anjali Huynh

One year after the inaugural Women’s March in Washington D.C., hundreds of people were seen in downtown Iowa City carrying posters and donning pink clothing to support women’s rights.

“Show me what the future looks like. Show me what America looks like,” a woman calls.

Others answer, “This is what the future looks like. This is what America looks like.”

This call-and-response formatted chant is just one example of how protestors in Iowa City showed their colors on Saturday, Jan. 20, when over a thousand people from across Eastern Iowa gathered for the second annual Women’s March.

Beginning in 2017, this relatively new tradition was initiated in response to President Donald Trump’s inauguration when hundreds of thousands of people gathered for the “Women’s March on Washington” after he was sworn in. Since then, the Women’s March has transformed from a scattering of protests into a movement still continuing to sweep the nation today.

Marches were held in 673 cities around the world. Called “sister marches,” they allow people all over the country to protest for change in their own towns. The 2018 Iowa City sister march was organized by Beth Gier and Dawn Willging only two short weeks before the event.

“While discussing the possibility of carpooling to Des Moines for the event there, a group of us wondered why there was nothing planned for Iowa City and thought, ‘Maybe we could plan something,’” Gier said. “No one in the group knew everyone else before we started, but everyone knew at least one other person.”

Women and men of all ages and ethnicities joined together to hear speeches from leaders throughout the community, like recently-elected ICCSD school board president Ruthina Malone and Iowa City councilwoman Mazahir Salih.

Malone spoke of her commitment to “dismantling systems of oppression” and cited Women’s March principles as inspiration to continue fighting for equality.

“After the presidential election last year, I wanted to be an agent for change to ensure all women had a voice,” Malone said. “I was privileged to have outstanding women invest countless hours in my campaign to ensure that I was successful, and I know that without their support, I would not be here today…. [My] run gave me an opportunity to show my daughter and her friends, as well as other minority girls, that anything is possible, and that we all have a right to be heard and seen.”

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Following Malone, Salih reflected on her journey to becoming the first Sudanese elected official in the nation, saying that, “I have been told that I am the first, but I’m not going to be the last.”

She also spoke of how citizens can take action to invoke change in ways beyond posting on social media.

“Do not wait around for the next November,” she advised. “Be strong. Be physically present for the things you believe in. Do not just post a Facebook and send Tweets. Show up. Participate … We are together. We are the future. We will not stop. We will make this world a better place. We are women, and we are strong.”

Other prominent figures were also present, such as West High graduate and Iowa Senate candidate, Zach Wahls. Wahls marched along with hundreds of others, displaying a sign reading, “Raised by two women, marching for ALL women.”

“The sign says it all: I was raised by two women and I’m marching for all women,” Wahls said. “My moms raised me to believe that feminism is a radical idea, that women are people, and that’s important to me, so I’m just here in solidarity and I’m glad to be here.”

West students were among the hundreds marching at the event as well, and many shared sentiments of inspiration and positivity after the march.

“I actually teared up,” Isabelle Paulsen ’21 said. “There were a lot of people here, [and] I just am proud of Iowa City.”

“It just has such a strong, welcoming environment here,” Rachel Podhajsky ’21 added. “I was surprised by how many younger kids and older women were here. I thought that was really powerful, that it’s not just us teenagers getting angry at the world. [It shows that] everyone’s a person, that everyone is human.”

Emily Buck ’19 hopes that the large crowd will help motivate others to bring about changes that are favorable to women and other minorities.

“With the direction our country is going and has been going, I think protest is a necessary way to demonstrate our disappointment,” Buck said. “I wasn’t expecting this many people … [but] I’m really amazed and inspired that so many people showed up. I think that speaks a lot [and] shows that we can’t be ignored. We’re such a huge part of this country, and ignoring us is not going to make the issue go away.”

More information on the Women’s March movement can be found here.

Going professional

Behind the story:

The University of Iowa Lecture Committee released information that they were bringing Ron Stallworth, the “Black Klansman,” to speak to individuals in the Iowa City area. Seeing an opportunity to cover a high-profile figure, I contacted the “Arts” editor at Little Village magazine and asked to write a piece on his lecture. After obtaining her approval, I wrote a recap of the lecture that same night.


This story was published on Jan 25, 2019 on the online edition of Little Village magazine. Through this, I was able to write for a larger platform in a timely manner.


“‘Black Klansman’ Ron Stallworth tackles white supremacy, activism and Donald Trump at Englert lecture” by Anjali Huynh

Ron Stallworth’s story was the source of the Academy Award-nominated film ‘BlackKkKlansman.’

“I bet you all thought you were gonna get John David Washington up here, but you got me,” Ron Stallworth began, prompting laughter with a joke about the actor who played him in last year’s BlacKkKlansman, within two minutes of his arrival on the Englert Theatre stage.

The 65-year-old former police officer whose story was the source for the Academy-Award nominated movie spoke on Wednesday, Jan. 23 as part of the University of Iowa Lecture Series. With a line forming in the bitter cold hours before doors opened, it was clear Stallworth was highly sought after for his seemingly-fantastical tale of how he infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

During the lecture, Stallworth made explicit parallels to current government officials, calling for people to remove white supremacy from the federal government.

“Vote that idiot out of the White House. Secondly, vote that idiot Congressman out,” he said, referring to Donald Trump and Steve King respectively. “There is no excuse for what’s going on in our body of politics right now.”

The main focus of the event, however, was Stallworth’s own story. Propped up against the podium, Stallworth casually addressed the audience of over 700 without notes, treating the speech more like a casual conversation.

Ron Stallworth spoke as part of the University of Iowa Lecture Committee’s speaker series.

“How did a black man gain membership into the Ku Klux Klan, so much so that they wanted him to become the chapter president?” Stallworth posed to the crowd of over 700. He then launched into an animated, profanity-littered lecture that had the audience roaring in laughter at some points and dead-silent at others.

Stallworth’s wild journey began in 1978 when he noticed an ad listed in the newspaper to join the KKK. At the time, he was working as an undercover officer in the intelligence division of Colorado Spring Police Department, the only black officer there.

“I figured, what the hell,” he said.

After composing a letter peppered with racial slurs and laments about the “abuse of the white race,” Stallworth mailed it to the listed P.O. Box. To his surprise, a Klan representative called the undercover phone line within the next couple of weeks, inquiring further about Stallworth’s interest. After answering this man, Ken O’Dell, with more racism-filled lies, the two scheduled a face-to-face meeting.

“Obviously, because God blessed me with this beautiful ebony skin, I couldn’t meet him,” Stallworth noted. So, Stallworth hatched a plan: Find a white undercover cop to be his avatar. When he pitched the idea, others officers gave him dubious looks, asking, “Are you a crazy son-of-a-bitch or what?” he said. Not to be deterred, Stallworth convinced the police chief to sanction the operation.

What followed was seven-and-a-half months of investigative work, featuring discoveries of gay-bar bombing plans, cross-burning attempts and Klan members stationed in high-ranking positions. During this period, Stallworth established a relationship with Klan Grand Wizard David Duke over the phone, often gaining insight to prevent Klan marches nationwide. In fact, it was Duke who personally created the Klan membership card Stallworth carries with him to this day.

This dangerous ruse faced its only identity challenge when O’Dell noticed a discrepancy in Stallworth’s voice over the phone after meeting with Stallworth’s white counterpart, Chuck. Thinking quickly, Stallworth feigned a sinus infection, and O’Dell’s doubts were removed. He even began prescribing a home remedy.

“That’s a key to good undercover work,” Stallworth said. “If you have a strong story in the beginning, if you plant that seed deep in their minds, they will fight themselves to think otherwise. They will defend you.”

A highlight of the investigation, according to Stallworth, was standing up directly to Duke, who he paralleled to today’s Knights of the KKK leader, Thomas Robb, saying Duke was “smooth but a monster.”

Ron Stallworth, the first black officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department, infiltrated the KKK in 1979.

Duke was in Colorado Springs giving a speech to Klan members, and Stallworth was begrudgingly assigned to protect him. Seeing an opportunity to gain the upper hand, Stallworth asked to take a photo with Duke and the Grand Dragon, Fred Wilkins. Angered to be pictured with a black man touching him, Duke tried to snatch away the photo, Stallworth stood firm and threatened to “kick his ass,” the very scenario white supremacists like Duke feared.

“David walked away very sullenly to his little group and proceeded to give them a message about white supremacy,” Stallworth recalled, “and I stood off to the side smirking because I had just destroyed it.”

The investigation ended when Stallworth was asked to be the KKK chapter president and the chief decided it was time to shut the operation down. However, when asked to shred all documents pertaining to the case, Stallworth hid notebooks detailing the research accumulated over the investigation. Putting his career on the line, he said, was worthwhile because “no one would believe me unless I had proof.”

“What I did was morally and ethically wrong,” he said. “You young people, don’t do something stupid like I did. I got away with it. I was lucky. Had they found out about it, my career would’ve ended right there on the spot. But they didn’t find out.”

In 2014, he transformed this evidence into a New York Times #1 bestselling memoir. From there, screenwriters Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee transformed the book into a six-time Academy Award nominated movie (including a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay).

Though no official arrests were ever made, Stallworth firmly believes that his investigation was a success, noting that “police departments tend to think within the box.” During the span of his intelligence-gathering, he prevented three domestic acts of terrorism; helped relocate two KKK members with high-security jobs that had access to nuclear weapons; and identified links between the Colorado white supremacy movement and various national “white supremacy idiots.”

When asked whether he ever considered halting this potentially threatening mission, his response was simple.

“I was a trained undercover cop for over half of my career. We don’t get embarrassed or scared … We never thought about backing out. You never give that edge to the bad guys. You make them fear you, you don’t fear them.”

At its core, however, the lecture was one of inspiration, intended to spur activism. Stallworth appealed to younger members of the audience, encouraging action and truth-seeking.

“Keep this in mind: When someone says you can’t do something, and you know that you’re on the right path, that your cause is right and true, follow your path,” Stallworth said. “Don’t let somebody tell you no.”