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Court Revives Suit Over School Isolation Room

A federal appeals court has revived a lawsuit filed by the mother of a 7-year-old autistic child who was repeatedly locked in a dark isolation room at his school for misbehavior.

An en banc panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled 8-3 that the Washington state mother's suit raised constitutional claims in addition to claims under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Thus, the entire suit did not have to exhaust administrative remedies under the federal special education law, the court held in a closely watched case that included briefs from the Obama administration and from the National School Boards Association.

The mother's lawsuit challenges the use by a Washington state school district of an isolation room for her son, identified in court papers as D.P. According to court papers, an elementary school teacher in the Peninsula School District, based in Gig Harbor, Wash., used a small "safe room" to give students timeouts when they misbehaved.

D.P.'s parents initially gave grudging consent to placing their son in the safe room as part of his individualized education plan. However, they raised objections after D.P. was locked in the room several times and urinated and defecated on himself, the suit contends.

The mother's suit for unspecified damages raises claims under the Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as alleging that the school violated procedures under the IDEA. But because the mother did not exhaust administrative remedies under the federal special education law, both a federal district court and a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit court had ruled for the school district.

In its July 29 decision in Payne v. Peninsula School District, the larger 9th Circuit court panel said it was not deciding whether any of the suit's claims had merit. But it ordered the district court to allow the mother to amend her suit to flesh out her civil rights claims. Then, the court must decide whether those claims are related to the IDEA and require administrative "exhaustion."

"We hold that the IDEA's exhaustion provision applies only in cases where the relief sought by a plaintiff in the pleadings is available under the IDEA," said the majority opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge Jay S. Bybee. "Non-IDEA claims that do not seek relief available under the IDEA are not subject to the exhaustion requirement, even if they allege injuries that could conceivably have been redressed by the IDEA."

Writing for the dissenters, Judge Carlos T. Bea said the majority was nullifying the intent of Congress when it passed the IDEA.

"The newly restricted exhaustion requirement will allow plaintiffs—through gamesmanship and cleverly-crafted pleadings—to subject school districts to civil liability for money damages, without first giving school districts the opportunity to remedy the plaintiff's injuries under the IDEA," Judge Bea said.

The exhaustion-of-remedies issue, though technical, attracted friend-of-the-court briefs on opposing sides. The Obama administration, siding with the mother, argued in a brief that "the IDEA does not require a plaintiff who seeks only compensatory damages for past unconstitutional conduct and has resolved all prospective educational issues to request a due process hearing before suing."

"The IDEA was not intended to be, and should not be construed as, a shield from liability for those school districts and their employees who unconstitutionally abuse seclusion and restraint techniques when dealing with children with disabilities," the brief added.

The NSBA, meanwhile, sided with the Peninsula district, arguing in its brief that "relaxing the IDEA's administrative exhaustion requirement does violence to Congress' intent to ensure expeditious, less adversarial dispute resolution with minimal emotional and financial costs to the parties."

The NSBA also said in its brief that there is no consensus among educational experts for or against using student seclusion techniques such as isolation rooms, and that "Washington state law specifically countenances the use of isolation as an aversive intervention special education strategy."

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