Settlement requires state to monitor Contra Costa school that retained students
Elyse K., a mother of twins in Contra Costa County, knew something was wrong at her children’s new school when her daughter, then 8, refused to get out of the car when driving home from school. morning.
“She said they hung her on the wall like a coat on a coat rack with her legs spread like an X,” said the parent, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his children’s identities. . “She said she had enough and didn’t want to go back.”
Alarmed, Elyse K. confirmed the story with Marchus School staff and asked the state to investigate. His actions, along with those of other parents, led to a lawsuit that was settled last week, requiring systemic changes at Concord Public School for children with serious emotional and behavioral problems.
“I feel good because it means things are going to change,” said Elyse K., whose children are now in high school. “My children are out of school now, but it will help their friends and any other students who come after them. … There will be no room for the systemic failures that existed before.
According to the lawsuit, the Marchus School used extreme tactics — such as physical restraint and isolation — to punish students and control their behavior, in violation of their individualized education programs. Such tactics are legal in California under Assembly Bill 2657, but only if the student poses an immediate threat to themselves or others. The tactic of seclusion and restraint is never permitted as a disciplinary tool.
The settlement, announced earlier this month, requires the state to closely monitor Marchus School for two years to ensure students are safe and not subjected to such extreme measures, and to train staff to positive discipline. A separate settlement with the Contra Costa County Office of Education, which operates the school, is pending.
The state has not admitted responsibility, but has already conducted its first review of the Marchus school and found it compliant with the reforms, said Maria Clayton, communications director for the California Department of Education.
The Contra Costa County Office of Education has not commented on the matter as its separate agreement has not yet been finalized. But in 2019, when the complaint was filed, a spokesperson for the department says the school had been in compliance with state disciplinary laws since 2018.
Disability rights advocates hailed the settlement as a victory for students with disabilities, who make up the vast majority of restrained and isolated students in California schools.
“What’s really important here is for the state to step up to take responsibility for seclusion and restraint incidents,” said Tara Ford, senior counsel at Public Counsel. “And they combine it with training in positive behavioral interventions and supports. … It’s revolutionary.
Most states limit or prohibit the use of seclusion and restraint as a means of punishing or controlling students. But it still happens, sometimes with catastrophic results. A common loophole occurs when a district sends a student with behavioral issues to a private school for specialized services, and the private school operates largely unchecked. In 2018, a 13-year-old Davis student with autism died after staff at his private school held him for an hour and a half. That same year, two Los Angeles students at a private school required emergency treatment after sustaining bruises while in detention.
For Elyse K., the Marchus School initially seemed like a godsend. Her children’s anxiety and behavioral problems led to near-constant problems at their regular school. Her son, for example, often left class or self-harmed, such as banging his head against a desk. The school called Elyse K. so often, she said, that she ended up quitting her job as a preschool teacher to care for her children.
So when district staff recommended Marchus, a school designed to help students like hers, Elyse K. felt relieved. Finally, she thought, they would get the advice and expert attention they needed.
But after hearing her daughter’s story of detention and isolation at school, Elyse K. decided to act. She wrote letters to the state and disability rights groups, eventually connecting with Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund and Public Counsel, a nonprofit law firm, which supported the case and found more families who had been affected by the isolation and restraint measures in Marchus. . The Los Angeles law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell also worked on the case, pro bono.
The twins now attend a traditional high school near their home. Although the new school is a dramatic improvement over Marchus, said Elyse K., the negative effects of their time there still persist. Both are so behind academically and socially that they are in special day classes. Elyse K.’s son excels, but her daughter is frustrated and struggling, often starting the day in tears because she feels like she’s missed such an important learning.
“His self-esteem went from 100% to zero,” Elyse K. said.
However, Elyse K. is convinced that the twins will flourish in their new environment. She herself has found a new career, as a special education teacher, and is hopeful for the future of the family.
“I made a promise to myself to get my babies out of there and get them to a safe place. But I want to make sure that no other family will have to go through what we went through,” she said. “So I’m going to keep working on this until my kids have kids.”
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