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Court Blocks Suit Over School Isolation Room

A school's placement of an autistic child in a locked isolation room for misbehavior was "a recognized educational tool" and was part of the child's special education plan, thus a parent who challenged the tactic first had to exhaust administrative remedies before suing, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The majority ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, prompted a sharp dissent from one member of the panel.

U.S. Circuit Judge John T. Noonan noted in his dissent that a Washington state teacher repeatedly locked a 7-year-old child identified as D.P. "into an unventilated, dark space the size of a closet for indeterminate amounts of time, causing D.P. to become so fearful that he routinely urinated and defecated on himself."

"It is clear that [the teacher's] misuse of the isolation room serves no legitimate educational purpose, is prohibited by state administrative regulations, and was imposed as punishment," Judge Noonan wrote.

The use of the isolation room was challenged by D.P.'s mother in a federal lawsuit under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and state law. The suit sought damages for alleged mental suffering and emotional distress, as well as for alleged violations of D.P.'s civil rights.

A federal district court ruled for the school district, saying the family had not exhausted its administrative remedies under the IDEA.

In its March 18 decision in Payne v. Peninsula School District, the 9th Circuit court panel upheld the district court. The majority noted that D.P.'s individualized education plan permitted placing him for "timeouts" in a "safe room." The majority acknowledged that placement in the room led D.P. to exhibit "scholastic setbacks" and "anxious behaviors," including urinating and defecating on himself.

"The use of the safe room here was at least an attempt at an educational program," the majority opinion by Judge Cynthia Holcomb Hall. "This is not to say we condemn or endorse the manner in which the safe room was used here. Rather we believe that, as an educational strategy (even if a misguided or misapplied one), it was better addressed initially by the administrative process."

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