Federal Judge Finds ADA Covers Fairfax County Public Schools’ Use of Restraint and Seclusion

Last evening, a federal judge refused to dismiss a civil rights lawsuit against Fairfax County Public Schools alleging the district’s use of restraint and seclusion on students with disabilities violates federal law.

The lawsuit was filed in October 2019 on behalf of six students with disabilities, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), and Communication FIRST. The law firms Brown, Goldstein & Levy, LLP and Fluet Huber + Hoang, PLLC are representing the plaintiffs.

In their complaint, the plaintiffs allege that students with disabilities, some as young as five years old, experience discrimination, psychological trauma, and physical harm from FCPS’s improper use of physical restraints and seclusion in cell-like rooms. The lawsuit claims that FCPS is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, and FCPS’s own guidelines, by using restraint and seclusion to punish and segregate students with disabilities. Plaintiffs contend such techniques are ineffective, traumatic, and systematically used on the students without any valid educational or safety reason. The suit points out that physical restraints and seclusion are so inherently dangerous and traumatizing that many states specifically outlaw or limit their use, and the U.S. Department of Education has heavily scrutinized and sought to regulate their application.

FCPS asked the court to dismiss the case. Judge Rossie D. Alston, Jr., ruled against FCPS and in favor of the plaintiffs, allowing the case to move forward on ADA grounds. Judge Alston ruled, among other things, that the individual plaintiffs’ claims showed discrimination, not merely the failure to provide special education services, and that, therefore, they were not required to take their claims first through the district’s administrative process.

Beginning in March 2019, FCPS, the tenth largest school district in the country, faced scrutiny over its use of restraint and seclusion when it was revealed that, despite reporting to the Federal government that it had not used restraint and seclusion on a single child from 2013 to 2017, in fact, at least one plaintiff had been restrained and secluded over 700 times in that same period.

“This is a critical decision for these individual Fairfax County families and others across the country who have entrusted schools to educate and support, rather than traumatize and punish, their children with disabilities. Judge Alston’s decision is important because it affirms that these families have rights under the ADA and that a court is the proper forum for their grievances to be heard. We look forward to continuing with this lawsuit and holding FCPS accountable,” said Regina Kline, counsel for the plaintiffs.

The motion was presented by Kevin Byrnes of FHH and Regina Kline of Brown, Goldstein & Levy, who serve as lead counsel on the case.

View the Judge’s order