9th Circuit Blocks Isolation Room Lawsuit

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A Washington school placed D.P., an autistic child, in a locked isolation room pursuant to an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that allowed him to be placed in a “safe room” for “timeouts.”

The child’s mother sued the school district for “negligence, outrage, and § 1983 violations.” These claims were based on D.P.’s constitutional rights and statutory rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”).

D.P. has autism, which delayed his academic progress and caused difficulty staying on task and impulsive, “inappropriate or aggressive” responses. His IEP placed him in a “transition classroom,” established goals, and addressed his behavior problems with interventions, including “time out in a ‘safe room.'”

The “safe room” is a 5′  by 6’ room located in the special education classroom. The teacher locked D.P. in this room “on multiple occasions in response to his classroom behavior.” The Court found that “On several occasions, he removed his clothes in there,  and urinated and defecated on himself. He helped his teacher, Jodi Coy, clean up his excrement. He began to exhibit anxious behaviors and experience emotional and scholastic setbacks.”

D.P.’s mother expressed concerns about the “safe room” from the beginning. The teacher “defended her use of the safe room as an appropriate response to D.P.’s attempts to gain attention through his misbehavior.” The parents “repeatedly requested that D.P. be removed from the Coy’s classroom.” When these requests were denied the parent sought damages for mental suffering and emotional distress, and for violations of D.P.’s civil rights.

Failure to Exhaust Administrative Remedies

The IDEA requires parents to exhaust their administrative remedies before filing suit in court. In an earlier decision, the federal district court ruled for the district because the family had not exhausted its administrative remedies under the IDEA.

In Payne v. Peninsula School District, the federal appeals court ruled that parents who challenge the child’s program must exhaust administrative remedies before bringing suit.

A Split Decision

In their decision (link below), the majority found that the child’s IEP permitted the school to place him in a “safe room” for “timeouts.” The Court acknowledged that placing D.P. in the isolation room caused “scholastic setbacks” and “anxious behaviors.” These behaviors included urinating and defecating on himself.

One judge disagreed.

Judge John T. Noonan noted that the teacher repeatedly locked D.P., a 7-year-old child “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.

Read the full text of the decision in Payne v. Peninsula School District at

Hat Tip to the School Law Blog at http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/school_law/

  1. There are times when we have to remind everyone that this is a person, not a problem, they work with. I unfortunately see too often lack of respect for children, especially those with disabilities.

    Parents need to constantly remind the team that this is a child. Bring photos to team meetings. Bring the child if possible, if not, bring videos. Show the child doing something s/he likes. Help them remember that the goal is the whole child developing.

    Never settle for keeping your child in an unsafe setting. Schedule multiple team meetings if you need to. After coming to the table to address the situation more than once, many times the team gets it.

    Use the parent concern form found in Wrightslaw. Ask the questions, and write down the answers. Record meeting if at all possible. Bring a note taker. Document everything.

  2. I wonder how judges can be educated so that they can properly distinguish an “educational strategy” from physical and psychological abuse and torture.

  3. This is why more and more parents who can are homeschooling these kids because most parents can’t afford to sue & if they do they get results like this child got.

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