Court: Seclusion room violated child’s constitutional rights

A federal court has refused a school district’s motion to end a long-running lawsuit involving a student with autism, whose parents argue that the student’s rights were violated under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment when he was repeatedly forced into a seclusion room, as a way to deal with the conditions of his autism.

“It is well-established that students do not ‘shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door,’” the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington wrote in the opinion. “School officials are subject to the limitations of the federal constitution. Students retain their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures in the school context.”

In 2003, the student, then seven years old, attended Artondale Elementary School in Gig Harbor Washington. For extended periods of time, school officials allegedly punished the student by placing him in a “safe room” about the size of a closet when he became “over stimulated,” according to the opinion. Often, the school officials allegedly would lock the student in the closet, or wedge the door shut with a chair.

The students’ parents sued the school in 2005, alleging a range of violations under federal and state law. Both the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington and the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit dismissed the case, finding that the plaintiffs had not exhausted their remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which governs special education law, before bringing the lawsuit.

A full panel of the 9th Circuit revived the case in August 2011, finding that the constitutional claims could still be brought even though the IDEA claims were no longer valid.

On August 30, 2013, the district court found that the use of the seclusion room violated the student’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizures.

The court also found that the school’s actions violated the student’s substantive due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

“Discipline that ‘shocks the conscience, offends a sense of justice or runs counter to the decencies of civilized conduct’ violates the student’s substantive due process right.,” the court stated.

In addition, the court found that the school district could be held liable for failing to properly supervise the teacher whom conducted these actions.

The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates represented the plaintiffs.