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Use of Seclusion Room Violates Constitutional Rights

Wednesday, September 18, 2013   (2 Comments)
Posted by: Denise Marshall
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Case Summary and Analysis:

Payne v. Peninsula School District

Robin Pick, Esq., COPAA Legal Analyst

A district court in the 9th Circuit just issued a well reasoned, child friendly decision in a seclusion case. In Payne v Peninsula School District, LEXIS 124812 (D. Wash. August 30, 2013), the court held that the use of an isolation room on an autistic student violated his constitutional rights and that the teacher and school district were not entitled to qualified immunity. The court articulated various important points, which are detailed below.

The student was a seven-year-old autistic child who was locked in a "safe room” the size of a closet by his teacher when he became disruptive in class. The student’s parents sued the teacher and the school district, asserting claims for violations of the child’s constitutional rights under § 1983 and state law claims.

The central question in this case, on remand from the Ninth Circuit, is whether the teacher and school district violated the student’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment constitutional rights, and if so, whether they are entitled to qualified immunity.

Fourth Amendment Constitutional Violation

The court found that the teacher violated the student’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. In reaching this conclusion, the court stated that "[i]t is well-established that students do not ‘shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door,’” and that "a student's right to be free from excessive force was clearly established since 1990.” The court found that in locking a seven-year-old autistic child in a small, dark room for indeterminate periods of time and for an improper purpose, the teacher’s use of the room violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

Teacher Not Entitled to Qualified Immunity

 To determine whether the teacher was entitled to qualified immunity, the court asked whether the constitutional right was "clearly established.” The court held that the student’s constitutional right was "clearly established” and that teacher was not entitled to qualified immunity on the Fourth Amendment claim. In so holding, the court stated "it is generally clear that using too much force is not constitutional, and it is true in the context of students and particularly small, autistic students.”

Fourteenth Amendment Constitutional Violation

The court applied the "shocks the conscience” test to determine whether the teacher violated the student’s Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights. The court found that locking the child in a small room until he defecated and making him clean up his own feces as a punishment, is shocking to the conscience, and violated the student’s due process rights.

Teacher Not Entitled to Qualified Immunity

The court found that the student’s Fourteenth Amendment rights were "clearly established” and that the teacher was, therefore, not entitled to qualified immunity on the Fourteenth Amendment claim.

 

School District Liability

Parents also claim that the school district violated the student’s rights by failing to train and supervise the teacher’s use of "aversive therapy." In order to establish a claim against a municipality for a constitutional violation under § 1983, the plaintiff is required to show that the deprivation of constitutional rights was caused by an official policy, custom or practice, that amounts to deliberate indifference.

The court found that the District knew of and permitted the teacher’s use of the isolation room over time, and therefore, ratified her conduct. The court also found that the teacher’s use of the isolation room amounted to a "custom,” as the District was aware her use and took no action to curb her conduct.

In applying the "deliberate indifference” standard, the court found that the District’s failure to adequately train the teacher on aversive therapy techniques amounted to a deliberate indifference, and that it was the "moving force behind constitutional violations.” In so holding, the court recognized a duty to train on adversives and established that inadequate training can result in liability for a school district.

Other Important Issues

Mootness

Defendants argued that Plaintiff’s claim for a declaratory judgment was moot since the student no longer attended a school that used an isolation room. The court stated that a claim is not moot, even if defendants have ceased the conduct at issue, if the cessation is voluntarily and nothing prevents them from resuming the conduct in the future. The court found that although the District stopped using "safe rooms,” their decision to do so was voluntary and there is nothing that will prevent them from using a "safe room” with the student in the future. For this reason, the court found that the claim is not moot.

IDEA Exhaustion Requirement

In a footnote, the court elucidated the new standard for determining whether a §1983 constitutional claim requires exhaustion under the IDEA. In determining whether Plaintiffs' declaratory relief claim is barred by the IDEA's exhaustion requirement, the Court asked "whether Plaintiffs are seeking to enforce rights that arise as a result of a denial of FAPE, or whether they are seeking to enforce rights protected by other laws.” In this case, Plaintiffs were seeking a declaration that the use of the isolation room deprived the student of his constitutional rights. The court found that the Plaintiff’s claim for declaratory relief was not barred by the IDEA exhaustion requirement, stating that "whether the safe room was used in accordance with the student’s IEP (and therefore was not a denial of FAPE) is not relevant to the determination of whether the use of the safe room was constitutional.”

It is significant that this case acknowledges that including the use of aversives such as seclusion in an IEP does not automatically establish that the manner in whichthetechnique is used is constitutional. Having aversives in IEP is not a free pass for schools.

School’s Duty to Protect Students

It is also notable that the court’s opinion articulates that "schools have a clear duty to protect its students from reasonably anticipated dangers.”

 

Comments...

Sonja Kerr says...
Posted Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Would love to discuss what people think this case means for the federal Restraint and seclusion legislation.
Robin Raef says...
Posted Monday, November 4, 2013
Finally!

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