It was not the first time the student had been secluded — and it was not unusual at PACE East, according to a complaint that the family’s attorneys filed last week with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
The complaint, alleging discrimination on the basis of emotional disability, asserts that staff at PACE East relied too frequently on seclusion at the Manassas area school, with students missing long periods of instruction. It also alleges that school officials too often resorted to the use of physical restraint, with some students held facedown on the floor.
This happened “even when they presented no apparent threat to the safety” of school personnel, themselves or other students, it said.
Many educators say such practices are necessary in emergencies to ensure safety. They are often, but not exclusively, used with students who have disabilities and are frequently controversial.
This year, new federal guidelines urged that restraint and seclusion be used only when there is imminent danger of serious physical harm to a child or others. A 2009 Government Accountability Office report examined allegations and cases of student deaths and injuries from such practices.
In Prince William, James E. Fagan III, an attorney for the school system, said officials received the complaint last week and have begun to review it. Federal officials have not yet contacted the school system, he said.
“These are allegations of a serious nature, and we take them very seriously,” Fagan said. “Rest assured, we don’t bury our head in the sand.”
School system officials cannot comment on any specifics, Fagan said, but he noted that Prince William has “well-developed” policies concerning restraint and seclusion that the county updated last year.
“We are constantly monitoring the law in this area and training our folks in best practices, and we’ll continue to do so,” Fagan said.
The complaint cites numerous incidents at PACE East, including one in December 2011, when a student refused to leave a bus and was taken to the “quiet room” in a process that lasted nearly five hours. The complaint indicates that the student “wet himself.”
The complaint cites a school log that refers to 115 cases of restraint and 147 instances of seclusion at PACE East between September 2011 and March 2012. Periods out of class lasted as long as six hours for conduct including class disruption, profanity, refusing to follow directions, running away, and hitting and kicking staff, according to the complaint.
“Restraint and seclusion are supposed to be used as a last resort,” said William B. Reichhardt, the lead attorney in the case, which was filed jointly by two law firms and the Legal Aid Justice Center.