A lawsuit alleges that repeated restraints at school left a girl who has a developmental disability with post-traumatic stress disorder. (Ting Shen/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)
A deaf family is suing a Washington school district after they say their child, who has a disability, was repeatedly restrained at school, causing her to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, their lawyer said.
The child, who is now 7 years old and has a developmental disability, was subjected to “excessive restraint and isolation” at her elementary school beginning in September 2021, according to the lawsuit filed recently.
Her mother and grandmother, who are deaf, were not adequately informed about the use of restraints on their child and were not allowed into the school to observe her class, the lawsuit says. The family requested to remain anonymous to protect their child’s privacy, according to their lawyer, Whitney Hill of Cedar Law.
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Hill told McClatchy News that teachers and administrators at the child’s school, Lockwood Elementary, which is in the Northshore School District, did not properly fill out the required reports each time the student was restrained and did not take steps to appropriately communicate with the child’s mother, who uses American Sign Language.
“At the end of the day, it was really clear to us that the district was scared, and they knew they messed up,” Hill said.
A spokesperson for the school district, which is headquartered in Bothell, about 20 miles northeast of Seattle, did not respond to a request for comment from McClatchy News.
In an email sent to the Everett Herald, a district spokeswoman said administrators were reviewing the lawsuit.
“Northshore School District is committed to ensuring the well-being and safety of each and every one of our students,” the statement says, according to the outlet. “We take the nature of these allegations very seriously. The district cannot further comment on ongoing litigation.”
‘A very dangerous practice’
The restraints used on the kindergarten student were “so frequent and severe that they often resulted in physical injury and/or distress,” the lawsuit says.
Restraint is when a student is “physically immobilized,” and isolation is when a student is “placed in a small, confined room” alone, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. In Washington, school staff are only allowed to restrain and isolate students when their behavior poses an “imminent likelihood of serious harm,” per the ACLU.
The first time the student was restrained occurred on Sept. 7, 2021, after an incident in the lunchroom, the lawsuit says. She became “so upset and overstimulated” that she vomited while in the restraint, according to the lawsuit.
Lawyers later obtained text messages between staff members who expressed “disappointment” at the fact the student vomited from stress and not COVID-19, which would have required her to quarantine at home for at least 10 days, the lawsuit says.
Restraints were also often used on the student when she did not pose a threat to herself or others, according to the lawsuit.
On Jan. 12, 2022, the student was restrained on three separate occasions for “refusing to wear a (face) mask in close proximity to her peers,” the lawsuit says. Both the student and her teacher were injured because of the restraint, according to the lawsuit.
Hill described the use of restraint and isolation as a “very dangerous practice. I’ve almost never seen restraint and isolation used effectively.”
The student, who by January 2022 was being restrained for “long periods of time, multiple times per day,” was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result, the lawsuit says.
Lack of communication
The district was “actively working to prevent” the student’s family from knowing what their child was going through at school, the lawsuit says.
District officials did not honor the student’s mother’s repeated requests to include the student’s grandmother on all communications so that she could help translate them into American Sign Language, the lawsuit says. The district also denied the mother and grandmother’s request to observe their child’s classroom and declined to provide a qualified American Sign Language interpreter, according to the lawsuit.
Hill said it is still unclear in many cases what was used to restrain the child and how long she was restrained because the district did not fill out adequate reports.
“It’s really disturbing that the district really still has not come forward with any explanation of what happened or details or an apology to the family,” she said.
Once the family obtained a lawyer, the district filed a “purposefully misleading” report with Child Protective Services about the student’s behavior, according to the lawsuit.
“What shocked me was the extent that the district went to try to retaliate against the parents, who only were just trying to get information from the school about what was happening to their child,” Hill said.
Once the family hired attorneys, district officials agreed to allow the student to change schools, and her behavior immediately improved, the lawsuit says.
“She’s now participating in general education more than 70% of her school day,” Hill said. “She enjoys being there, she’s excited to go.”
The lawsuit is seeking damages in an amount that is yet to be determined.
“The parents are also very interested in taking steps to ensure that this doesn’t happen to other families,” Hill said.
© 2023 McClatchy News
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC
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