Federal Judge Allows ADA Violation Lawsuit Against Fairfax County Public Schools to Move Forward

The judge ruled FCPS can be sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act for frequent and unreported use of restraint and seclusion toward students with disabilities, following arguments presented by FH+H attorney Kevin Byrnes and Regina Kline of Brown, Goldstein & Levy.

A federal judge recently rejected Fairfax County Public Schools’ (FCPS) request to dismiss a civil rights lawsuit of alleged violations of the American with Disability Act (ADA) toward a group of students with disabilities. The judge’s ruling marks a major victory for parents seeking to enforce the rights of disabled school children to be free from unlawful restraint and seclusion. 

The case was brought by FH+H attorney Kevin Byrnes and Regina Kline of Brown, Goldstein & Levy on behalf of six student minors with varying disabilities, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), and Communication FIRST.

Plaintiffs allege that FCPS disproportionally used physical restraint and segregation toward students with disabilities. Students with processing, verbal, and other impairments can be placed in cell-like isolation rooms in response to disability-related actions. FCPS’s improper use of physical restraint and segregation punishment has caused these students to experience discrimination, psychological trauma, and physical harm.

The lawsuit, which was filed in October 2019, claims FCPS’s punishment violated the ADA and the school district’s own guidelines. It further alleged that the county minimized or neglected to properly record or notify parents of instances of the application of excessive and counterproductive force, some of which produced physical injuries to the students in question. 

FCPS reported to the federal government that it had not used restraint or seclusion tactics from 2013 to 2017; however, one plaintiff — a 13-year-old, non-verbal student with autism — was restrained and secluded more than 700 documented times by the school’s staff during that period. The students experiencing such punishments were as young as five years old.

In an attempt to block the case, FCPS argued the issues filed involve “educational services,” which falls under the regulation of the Individual with Disabilities in Education Act, rather than the ADA; Meaning, if true, the plaintiffs must file the complaints through an administrative review process before a federal lawsuit can be filed. 

The court concluded that the plaintiffs were not bringing claims for educational services for a particular student, but the lawsuit identifies the routine deployment of physical force and restraint as well as enforced isolation and seclusion of disabled students. Thus, the court ruled that allegations of systemic and widespread abuse and mistreatment, referenced by plaintiffs in their extensive complaint, deals with violations of the ADA, which qualifies the case to be heard by the court.

Mr. Byrnes, the attorney from FH+H, said the ultimate harm from these tactics is long-lasting and societal in nature. 

“If these allegations are true, the conduct is shocking and sends a message to the disabled at an early age that they can be segregated and abused,” Mr. Byrnes said. “It also identifies to students’ teachers and staff that the mistreatment of the disabled is not only tolerable, it is appropriate. The school system’s conduct strikes at the very heart of the rights of the disabled to be educated, accommodated, and treated with dignity.”

Advocates for disabled children have pointed out that coercive methods often worsen disability-related behaviors for the long term and are traumatic. According to Mr. Byrnes, the suit seeks to end these practices and provide remedies to the students cited in the complaint.

FCPS is the 10th largest school division in the U.S. with 198 schools and centers. FCPS has more than 188,000 students enrolled in grades prekindergarten through 12. 

The case is Civil Action No 1:19-cv-01285 (RDA/JFA). Read the decision by U.S. District Court Judge Rossie Alston of the Eastern District of Virginia.

 

Note: Case results depend on a variety of unique factors and do not guarantee or predict similar results for future cases.

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