Parents and disability rights groups are suing the largest school system in Virginia, alleging students with disabilities experience discrimination, trauma and physical harm through the excessive and improper use of seclusion and restraint in Fairfax County Public Schools.
The parents, Jennifer Tidd, Pamela Ononiwu and Ashley Thomas, are accusing the 189,000-student school system of using the practices to “silence, detain, segregate, and punish students with disabilities,” according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
Fairfax school officials said they have completed a thorough and independent review of seclusion and restraint guidelines, and added staff, increased training and appointed an ombudsman for special education. The school system also created a task force to look at best practices for restraint and seclusion. The parents who filed the lawsuit lambasted that task force as a “public relations ploy.”
"We acknowledge that the use of restraint and seclusion is an especially sensitive and challenging issue and is appropriate only when less restrictive alternatives fail," Superintendent Scott Brabrand said in statement released late Tuesday. "We will continue to base our procedures and practices on that guiding principle."
Tidd’s son was secluded on at least 745 occasions and excluded from class several hundred more times over seven years, according to court papers. Tidd said she did not receive notice or documentation of the instances of seclusion within 24 hours, despite school system guidelines that say she should have been notified in that time frame.
“We have really no way of knowing what the total is,” Tidd said. “Our trust has been breached.”
The parents, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of four students, are asking the federal court to bar the school system from using either of the closely related practices on students with disabilities until an alternative system is implemented.
They also want the court to direct the school system to adopt reforms that prevent the unnecessary seclusion and restraint of students with disabilities and eliminate the practices as disciplinary or punitive measures, the lawsuit states.
Denise Marshall, executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a group that works to protect the rights of students with disabilities that joined the parents in the lawsuit, said the school system has abdicated its duty to provide students with a safe environment.
“It’s really disturbing to us any one student or several students have been restrained at such a high rate or placed in seclusion, day after day,” Marshall said. “We know that the students named in the suit are not alone.”
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network, which champions people with autism, and Communication First, which represents people with speech-related communication disabilities, are also plaintiffs in the suit.
The parents and disability rights groups accuse Fairfax school employees of secluding or restraining students with disabilities because workers are ill-equipped to “address the disability-related need itself.”
“They have allowed their untrained staff to respond to students with disabilities with no, or limited, training and guidance, forcing staff to assume knowledge and responsibilities for responding to children with disabilities that they profoundly lack,” the lawsuit states.
The Fairfax school system launched an investigation into its seclusion and restraint procedures after a report by WAMU-FM (88.5) identified hundreds of cases that school system officials failed to report to the federal government as required.
In the 2015-2016 school year, Fairfax told the U.S. Education Department that not a single student had been secluded or restrained in its 198 schools and education centers. Nine other large school systems, including New York, the nation’s largest district, also reported no instances of seclusion or restraint.
A June report from the federal government found that many school systems do a poor job of tracking seclusion and restraint, making it difficult for the Education Department to ensure that schools are not using the practices excessively.
The federal report said the findings raise questions about whether the errant reporting discovered in several large districts is “indicative of a more pervasive pattern of restraint and seclusion in U.S. public schools.”
According to the lawsuit filed against the Fairfax system, Tidd’s son was isolated in a “six-by-six-foot padded room with a magnetically locked door” and was regularly secluded for reasons that did not pose an imminent threat to himself or others, violating his constitutional rights.
The Fairfax school system prohibits seclusion and restraint unless the practices are necessary to protect the student or others.
Tidd said the boy experienced stress and nightmares as a result of routine seclusion. The 13-year-old now attends a private school where the use of restraint is limited and seclusion is not used, the mother said, and his behavior has improved.
She has started working with an international organization dedicated to addressing seclusion and restraint in schools and is advocating for legislation that would curb the practices on campuses.
“This is a worldwide problem,” Tidd said.