Jennifer Tidd sits with her son QT, who she says was kept in a seclusion room at a Fairfax County Public School. The lawsuit she filed comes after a WAMU investigation earlier this year detailed hundreds of cases in which school system officials neglected to report its seclusion and restraint procedures to the federal government.
Fairfax County Public Schools has settled a lawsuit with parents and disability rights activists over the district's use of seclusion and restraint against students with special needs, according to a joint news release. The full settlement was not immediately made public, but the release provides some details.
The settlement affirms that the school district — one of the nation's largest — will completely phase out the use of seclusion in its school buildings and private schools it contracts with by the 2022-2023 school year (seclusion in the district's base schools has been banned since January 2021). The settlement also prohibits restraining students unless there is an imminent risk of harm to the student or others, and it ends the use of certain restraint types that are likely to result in serious injury, including prone and supine positions, floor restraints, and chokeholds.
Before the 2022-2023 school year, students who "submit medical or psychological documentation that such practices would be contraindicated for them" will also not be allowed to be secluded or restrained, according to the news release.
FCPS also says it is contracting with a behavioral expert, Dr. Ross Greene, and Ukeru Systems, a program that provides alternatives to seclusion and restraint, to work towards the policy goal of eliminating both practices entirely, including writing quarterly reports on the district's progress towards implementing the new policy and training staff in positive behavioral interventions. Greene has already started working with staff in schools with a higher incidence of use of seclusion and restraint, an spokesperson for FCPS said in an emailed statement.
Parents and advocacy groups welcomed the settlement, but also emphasized the importance of ensuring staff are adequately trained to manage the policy changes.
"For those of us who have students who have been restrained and secluded — and I do have a child who has been secluded — it is profoundly traumatizing," says Diane Cooper-Gould, the head of advocacy for the Fairfax Special Education Parent-Teacher Association. "And this paradigm shift, if FCPS manages to do it effectively and universally could really, really change lives for literally hundreds of thousands of students and teachers, because it's traumatizing for teachers too."
The original lawsuit was filed by four parents of students and the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, CommunicationFirst, and the Autistic Self Advocacy Network in October 2019. It came after a March 2019 WAMU investigation found the district used seclusion and restraint hundreds of times — in some cases, confining children as young as 6 to an isolated room as many as 100 times in a year — but in some years didn't report a single instance to federal authorities, as required by law.
"There is a direct correlation between him starting school and watching him mentally collapse," said one parent of an autistic child who was routinely secluded at an FCPS school for children with emotional disabilities.
A subsequent investigation by the school district found 1,679 incidents of seclusion and restraint that affected 203 students in the 2017-2018 school year alone.
After that, the October 2019 suit alleged that FCPS had broken federal and state disability rights laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, in isolating and restraining students, and it suggested that FCPS had put students and staff in danger by not adequately training staff.
"Plaintiffs bring this action to hold Defendants accountable for the excessive and unjustified discrimination, psychological trauma, and physical harm inflicted by their illicit use of restraints and seclusion to silence, detain, segregate, and punish students with disabilities," the legal complaint reads. "Defendants' deployment of techniques more in tune with incarcerated prisoners than students with disabilities is not only egregious standing alone, but even more deplorable because Defendants' actions violate state and federal law, Defendants' own state guidelines, and evidence-based practices on how to address students with disabilities."
In the joint statement about the settlement, the plaintiffs encouraged continued vigilance as the school district moves to implement its new policies.
"Although the trauma the children in this lawsuit have endured because of restraint and seclusion can never be undone, we expect this resolution will ensure that no other student will ever have to experience such trauma," the plaintiffs said. "We also hope these policies will provide positive, coherent guidance to educators and staff so that uniformly-applied, evidence-based strategies for working with students with disabilities are followed."
For its part, FCPS's statement called attention to the district's work to correct course since the original reporting came to light. That included a "complete, thorough, and independent review of restraint and seclusion guidelines and practices, including parental notification, data collection and staff training," undertaken by the school board, the hiring of new teachers to specialize in behavioral interventions, and additional training for educator and support staff across the district.
Cooper-Gould, with the Special Education Parent-Teacher Association in Fairfax County, says the organization will continue to monitor the implementation of the trainings with an eye towards equity and reach across the whole school division.
"What happened this past year was that teachers...had kids come in, [and] seclusion had already been prohibited in our schools, but they did not yet have the training that they needed to help those students," she says. "What we really want to have happen is be much more proactive in terms of the depth and breadth of the training, and make sure that teachers actually feel prepared with the tools that they need to effectively help students before a crisis hits."
Cooper-Gould adds that Fairfax schools have been open to feedback and dialogue with advocates — a hopeful sign, she says.
"We want to keep those lines of communication open, and we also want to ensure that that things are happening as they're supposed to," as implementation proceeds, she says.
A representative from FCPS said in an email that the school district was on track to hit court-mandated deadlines for staff training. A large number of staff — more than 25,000 — have undergone a 90-minute de-escalation training from the Virginia Department of Education. Additional "comprehensive staff training to implement new strategies" will begin in January at Burke School, Kilmer Center, and Key Center, which are geared to support students with special needs.
"FCPS is committed to this complex and far-reaching overhaul of practices that takes time and careful planning to ensure that we provide the support and the learning environment that our students deserve," the email concluded.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.