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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane schools’ use of restraints, isolation, violated civil rights of special needs students, DOJ says


Spokane Public Schools for years used physical restraints and isolation in a way that violated state law, district policy and the civil rights of its special needs students, according to a U.S. Department of Justice review published Monday.

The DOJ also announced a settlement agreement Monday requiring the district to reform its restraint policies and stop using isolation to control students. The district, however, already has taken steps to reverse the trends, and the use of restraints and isolation in Spokane Public Schools plummeted over the last five years, from roughly 6,000 incidents during the 2017-18 school years to 222 incidents last year, according to data provided by the district.

State law and district policy only allowed for the use of isolation and restraints to control “spontaneous behavior that poses an imminent” threat of serious bodily harm, whether to the student or to others. Instead, the Department of Justice stated that, in response to student noncompliance, Spokane schools used restraints and isolation when there was no threat or long after an imminent threat had subsided.

In a written statement, school district officials stated there were incidents in 2018 that “surfaced concerns” about district practices, and that the district had been working since to improve their practices and appreciated the DOJ’s resolution.

The DOJ and the school district declined to clarify which 2018 events “surfaced concerns.”

In late 2018, attorney Richard Pope alleged that his autistic teenage daughter, Katie Pope, had endured severe physical abuse while being held in an unpadded room at Shadle Park High School.

Katie, who is nonverbal, was locked upward of a dozen times in Shadle’s Autism Behavior Learning Environment classroom, Richard Pope said in an interview.

On three occasions, she suffered injuries inside the isolation room that required treatment at Providence Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital, but she would remain locked inside the room for extended periods after the injuries occurred, Richard Pope stated.

At the time, Richard Pope took to social media to demand the termination of several Shadle officials and the Spokane school district’s then-Superintendent Shelley Redinger, who resigned in 2020 to take a job leading the Richland School District.

Ryan Lancaster with Spokane Public Schools declined to answer whether individual employees or administrators had been disciplined or otherwise held personally responsible for the illegal practices highlighted by the DOJ’s review. The U.S. Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Washington stated that the DOJ’s review focused on district policies, and that personnel decisions were the school district’s to make.

Lancaster said that, unlike other districts, SPS “predominantly chooses to serve all our special education students within district, rather than refer them to outside agencies.”

In 2021, Spokane Public Schools settled a lawsuit with the family of an Arlington Elementary School student who was repeatedly placed in an isolation room for hours at a time during the 2016-17 school year, the Inlander reported at the time.

The child’s parents, John and Kara Allen, told the Inlander their son would repeatedly return home with bumps and bruises and had soiled himself on one occasion.

The DOJ’s probe of the use of restraints and isolation in Spokane Public Schools stretched from 2017 to as recently as January 2022. According to the Department of Justice, educators or other employees of the district isolated or restrained 480 students in more than 7,800 instances during those years.

More than 99% of these students had disabilities, with the district acknowledging that the use of isolation and restraints was used “almost exclusively” on students with special education plans.

Some students across multiple schools were isolated or restrained frequently, with 33 of the most frequently disciplined students collectively spending nearly 585 hours in isolation or restraints, for an average of nearly 18 hours per student.

Restraints in Spokane Public Schools included physically holding a student in place, and in rare cases, the use of handcuffs by law enforcement. Students who were isolated were locked into a room by themselves or in some cases with a nurse or counselor.

Rather than change how the district responded to those students’ individual behavioral and mental health concerns, Spokane schools continued to use restraints and isolation to manage behavior the district “should have anticipated,” according to the DOJ.

District employees not named publicly by DOJ would continue to restrain or isolate students even if it caused their behavior to worsen or caused students trauma, and the district imposed “vague and arbitrary criteria” to determine when to release the student.

“The District’s restraint and isolation practices segregated hundreds of students with disabilities from their classmates and resulted in students missing hundreds of hours of instructional time,” the DOJ said.

Under the terms of the agreement, Spokane Public Schools will not use isolation at any of its schools, and will only restrain students who pose an imminent threat of serious harm to themselves or others. The district must also improve data collection efforts, better train staff and review its plans for managing and de-escalating student behavior.

The district must also establish a procedure for families to file complaints regarding future use of restraints or isolation. In addition, the district must offer counseling and education services as compensation to students with disabilities who were subjected to the district’s practices.

Finally, the district must appoint an intervention coordinator to ensure the district’s compliance with the agreement, a position the district has said it filled.

The use of restraints and isolation has decreased significantly in Spokane Public Schools in recent years.

During the 2016-17 school year, the district reported nearly 4,900 incidents in which a student was restrained or isolated, according to data from OSPI, increasing to 5,928 cases the following year.

In contrast, Seattle Public Schools, a district that had nearly twice the enrollment of Spokane, reported fewer than 500 cases in the 2016-17 school year and around 800 the following year.

At the time, the Spokane district stated that these numbers had been distorted by overreporting.

During the 2021-22 school year, 70 Spokane students were restrained a total of 202 times, compared to 86 students restrained 246 times in Seattle. Six Spokane students were injured during these restraints, compared to six in Seattle.

In the same period, 13 Seattle students were isolated a total of 16 times, compared to 10 Spokane students isolated 18 times. One Spokane student was reported injured as a result of the isolation; no Seattle students were reported injured.

But many districts have reported higher numbers of restraints than Spokane.

For instance, Lake Washington School District, which had a nearly identical number of students enrolled as Spokane schools last year, restrained 101 students for a total of 634 times, with nine injuries. The Vancouver School District, which has around 70% as many students, restrained 186 students a total of 928 times, the highest in the state.

Lancaster also noted that data from last year may be further skewed, because Spokane Public Schools returned to full in-person learning sooner than many West Side schools.

“I think (progress) has been too slow,” Richard Pope said. “But I’m not going to say it’s too little. They’re definitely headed in the right direction.”