Case: DOJ Investigation of Spokane Public Schools

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Case Summary

This was an investigation of allegations of discrimination against students with disabilities in Spokane Public Schools (SPS), specifically regarding their isolation and restraint practices. On April 17, 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), through its Civil Rights Division's Educational Opportunities Section, concluded an investigation into these practices under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The investigation aimed to determine whether SPS's methods amounted to …

This was an investigation of allegations of discrimination against students with disabilities in Spokane Public Schools (SPS), specifically regarding their isolation and restraint practices. On April 17, 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), through its Civil Rights Division's Educational Opportunities Section, concluded an investigation into these practices under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The investigation aimed to determine whether SPS's methods amounted to discrimination against students with disabilities and was prompted by concerns that SPS's practices might violate federal laws designed to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination in public entities. 

The DOJ's investigation, initiated on November 10, 2020, specifically scrutinized SPS practices from the 2017-18 school year through January 2022. The investigation involved a comprehensive review of district and school-level policies, state statutes, training materials, incident reports, student records (including Individualized Education Plans, Functional Behavior Assessments, Behavioral Intervention Plans, and Emergency Response Protocols), disciplinary data, personnel files, and interviews with more than 40 district employees.

The findings noted that SPS reported over 7,800 incidents of isolating or restraining 480 students, with more than 99% of these cases involving students with disabilities. Some students experienced repeated restraints or isolations, with thirty-three students in particular spending over 583.3 hours in such conditions. These practices were nearly exclusively used on students with special education plans, a fact acknowledged by the district itself.

The DOJ identified several practices contributing to SPS's noncompliance with ADA. Despite legal and policy stipulations limiting isolation and restraint to situations posing an imminent risk of serious bodily harm, SPS frequently employed these measures for noncompliant behaviors without such a risk and extended their use beyond what was necessary to mitigate any immediate danger. Instead of properly implementing and revising students' Behavioral Intervention Plans through new assessments, SPS routinely resorted to restraint and isolation, exacerbating noncompliant behaviors and disregarding signs of trauma in students. Furthermore, the criteria for ending restraint or isolation were found to be vague and arbitrary. The investigation revealed that SPS practices segregated students with disabilities, resulting in a loss of significant instructional time.

Consequently, the DOJ and SPS reached a settlement agreement to address these issues under the ADA. A key feature of this agreement was the appointment of an Intervention Coordinator tasked with overseeing the review and follow-up of incidents involving isolation or restraint, as well as improving restraint practices. The agreement also required the creation of Classroom-Wide Behavior Management Plans that emphasized proactive strategies and de-escalation techniques. These plans involved parental participation, allowing for requested modifications to accommodate individual student needs.

The agreement also categorically prohibited isolation and significantly limited the use of restraint to situations with an imminent risk of serious harm. It clarified acceptable interventions and mandated the thorough documentation and monitoring of any restraint or isolation incident to ensure compliance with policies and to assess the need for adjustments to Behavioral Intervention Plans. Further, the agreement stipulated revising existing Behavior Intervention Plans and Emergency Response Protocols to ensure they were personalized and aligned with the agreement's requirements. A new complaint procedure was also to be established to address any issues related to the use of isolation or restraint, ensuring timely and appropriate responses to complaints.

Additionally, the agreement included compensatory education and counseling for impacted students and required annual staff training on laws, policies, and intervention strategies relevant to disability discrimination. The DOJ would monitor compliance through biannual status reports from SPS, with the agreement set to conclude after the 2025-2026 school year, assuming full compliance was achieved.

Summary Authors

(3/23/2024)

Documents in the Clearinghouse

Document

DOJ Cover Letter

April 17, 2023

April 17, 2023

Findings Letter/Report

Settlement Agreement between The United States of America and Spokane Public Schools

April 17, 2023

April 17, 2023

Settlement Agreement

Summary of Settlement Agreement between the United States of America and Spokane Public Schools

April 17, 2023

April 17, 2023

Other

Docket

Last updated Aug. 30, 2023, 1:30 p.m.

Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.

Case Details

State / Territory: Washington

Case Type(s):

Disability Rights

Education

Key Dates

Case Ongoing: Yes

Plaintiffs

Plaintiff Description:

The Department of Justice (DOJ), scrutinizing Spokane Public Schools' use of isolation and restraint on students with disabilities and aiming to rectify practices deemed discriminatory under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Plaintiff Type(s):

U.S. Dept of Justice plaintiff

Public Interest Lawyer: No

Filed Pro Se: No

Class Action Sought: No

Class Action Outcome: Not sought

Defendants

Spokane Public Schools (Spokane), School District

Defendant Type(s):

Elementary/Secondary School

Facility Type(s):

Government-run

Case Details

Causes of Action:

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12111 et seq.

Available Documents:

Findings Letter/Report

Outcome

Prevailing Party: Plaintiff

Nature of Relief:

Injunction / Injunctive-like Settlement

Source of Relief:

Settlement

Form of Settlement:

Private Settlement Agreement

Content of Injunction:

Discrimination Prohibition

Provide antidiscrimination training

Implement complaint/dispute resolution process

Reporting

Recordkeeping

Monitoring

Training

Order Duration: 2023 - None

Issues

General/Misc.:

Access to public accommodations - governmental

Education

Juveniles

Restraints : physical

School/University policies

Disability and Disability Rights:

disability, unspecified

Reasonable Modifications

Discrimination Basis:

Disability (inc. reasonable accommodations)