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Columbus School District Sued Over Accusations of Locking Disabled Students in Padded Rooms

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012 at 1:04 AM

Ohio's largest school district sued in connection with the use of "seclusion rooms." The suit comes amid a growing national effort on the part of advocates for students with disabilities to regulate the use of isolation rooms and restraints.

Joe Gratz / Flickr

The independent state agency that advocates for the rights of disabled people is suing the Columbus public schools over the use of "seclusion rooms," which are secured rooms often used to isolate special needs students.

The suit comes amid a growing national effort on the part of advocates for students with disabilities to regulate the use of isolation rooms and restraints.

Columbus school district spokesperson Jeff Warner said Tuesday he forwarded our questions about the lawsuit to the district's legal department. We'll update this post with any response from the district. [Note]

In a court filing, the Columbus school district denies that it fails to oversee the use of seclusion rooms.

In the lawsuit filed Monday in federal court, the Ohio Legal Rights Service says it has initiated a "district-wide investigation of abuse, neglect and/or significant rights violation" in Columbus, Ohio's largest school district.

The investigation came about after the mother of an autistic student contacted the agency about her son being placed seclusion room -- which she called a "closet" -- more than once, according to the lawsuit. The mother said that her son, who is autistic, "had urinated in the room, was lying on the floor, and contracted a staph infection," according to the lawsuit.

An agency investigator visited the school and described the seclusion room as a "a padded room with a metal door that had two peep holes and a foot latch lock," according to the lawsuit. The agency said in the lawsuit that they believe at least four Columbus elementary schools have these kinds of rooms.

Teachers or other staff may decide secluding or restraining students is necessary at times to protect students from harming themselves or others, the federal Government Accountability Office told Congress in 2009:

For example, some doctors and teachers contend that using seclusions and restraints can reduce injury and agitation and that it would be very difficult for organizations to run programs for children and adults with special needs without being able to use these methods.

But these kinds of techniques can be dangerous, the GAO says:

We found that children are subjected to restraint or seclusion at higher rates than adults and are at greater risk of injury. Even if no physical injury is sustained, we also testified that individuals can be severely traumatized during restraint.

There are no federal laws specifically regulating secluding and restraining students. Ohio is one of 29 states that have some restrictions on the issue, according to a 2012 report from an autism advocacy group.

But that group, the Autism National Committee, says Ohio's laws are relatively weak:

In 2009, Ohio’s Governor issued Executive Order 2009-13S, which had three provisions relating to restraint only. ... Ohio has no protection against seclusion. Although the 2009 Executive order called for regulations to implement the order and to further regulate restraint and seclusion, the Ohio Department of Education has not promulgated them.

(Late Tuesday, we asked the Ohio Department of Education for an update on where those efforts stand. Again, we'll share what they share with us.) Ohio Department of Education spokesperson Patrick Gallaway says the department has been working on developing guidelines on the use of restraint and seclusion and, in January, the state Board of Education asked department staff to develop a timeline for finalizing and implementing those guidelines.

In the lawsuit, the Ohio Legal Rights Service is asking the federal court to require the school district to release records related to the use of seclusion rooms  and any other records requested in the course of their investigation to the agency.

Note, March 9: The Ohio Legal Rights Service has not reached any conclusions about the use of seclusion rooms in the Columbus school district. 

Ohio Legal Rights Service vs. Columbus City Schools

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