TACOMA — Lawyers presented opening arguments Monday in a federal civil rights lawsuit in which five families are suing the Longview School District for millions of dollars for allegedly placing students inside an “isolation booth” at Mint Valley Elementary School.
The jury trial centers on the controversial use of restraint and seclusion in schools.
Roger Davidheiser, a lawyer representing the five children, said Monday three former and current district employees deprived the children of their constitutional rights by allowing them to be placed in the booth when they were general education students (as opposed to special ed. students). Evidence will also show the students’ parents or guardians were never notified, he said.
Defendants named in the case include former Longview School District Superintendent Susanne Cusick, former Mint Valley Principal Patrick Kelley and former special education teacher Jerry Stein. Stein retired last year, and Cusick left the district in the spring of 2014. Kelley now is principal of the Broadway Learning Center.
The defendants “acted together to deprive the five children of their constitutional right to be free from unreasonable seizure and force,” Davidheiser told an eight-member jury.
In addition, Davidheiser said, evidence will also show that some of the the defendants are guilty of negligence and “outrageous behavior.”
A state law adopted in 2007 says restraint should only be used by school employees who have been trained in special de-escalation techniques. Isolation and seclusion are only permitted if a student is posing a clear and immediate threat to themselves or others. Isolation booths are also allowed for special education students as part of an individual education plan (IEP) signed by a parent or guardian.
Francis Floyd, the district’s lawyer, said Stein and his two aides did nothing wrong when they placed plaintiffs Kevin and Cecilia Wilsons’ 7-year-old son in Mint Valley’s isolation booth on a single occasion on Halloween in 2012. Furthermore, none of the other four four children were ever placed in the booth, Floyd said.
Other plaintiffs in the case include Candace Dawson, Candi Landis, Brandon Bastin and Tessa Green. Dawson and her child now live in Lake Stevens, Wash., while the other parents reside in the Longview-Kelso area. Dawson’s son recently turned 18; the other students are now 12 years old.
Floyd also said the record will reveal stark inconsistencies in the stories the children told investigators in video interviews compared with sworn depositions.
The plaintiffs say the children’s alleged experiences in the booth have adversely impacted their future prospects. They intend to call a psychologist as well as an economist to place a dollar figure on how much the children have allegedly lost due to lower earning potential and ongoing medical costs related to placement in the booth.
If the jury does decide in the plaintiffs’ favor, the damages awarded could easily reach the tens of millions of dollars.
“In this case, it’s going to take millions and millions of dollars to make this right,” Davidheiser said.
All five children have been diagnosed with conditions that include attention deficit disorder, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress syndrome, Davidheiser said. However, Floyd, the defense attorney, contested the idea that the booth aggravated the children’s disabilities. Whether the booth actually worsened the children’s disabilities is what’s important in this case, Floyd said.
“The parents of all these children are saying after this incident happened there was a significant change in (their) child’s behavior,” he said.
Academic and school records will indicate that the children had significant preexisting behavioral disorders, he said. “There was no change,” he said. “It was just a continuation of the same pre-existing problems.”
U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Bryan told jurors they will need to find the children’s claims “more probably true than not true” in order to find in the plaintiff’s favor. Plaintiffs have the burden of presenting clear and convincing evidence in civil lawsuits.
The case dates back to Nov. 6, 2012, when a Longview mother posted photos of the booth that her husband had obtained to Facebook. In her post, the woman said her son told her that school employees were placing kids in “the box” for “normal things we all do.” The photos quickly went viral and made local headlines.
Davidheiser said the district engaged in a “cover-up” that culminated in the removal and destruction of the booth about six days after the photos surfaced online. Davidheiser quoted from a Nov. 30, 2012, email that Cusick, the former superintendent, sent the school board shortly after the photos were posted.
“We, the administration, did not know an isolation booth existed in our district. It appears the isolation booth met some, but not all of the codes such as a window for the ability to view a child,” the email reads.
According to state law, isolation booths must be temperature-controlled and properly ventilated.
Davidheiser then read from another email sent from former Assistant Superintendent Chris Fritsch a few days later advising administrators, including Kelley, that booths were actually removed from two schools in response to the uproar.
“Calming booths were removed from Mint Valley and Mount Solo this morning without incident. They are now part of the landfill,” the letter reads.
But Floyd said additional evidence will show that district did not attempt a cover-up and administrators acted appropriately at all times.
“I disagree strongly with a number of allegations that he’s has made today,” he said. “I don’t believe he can prove what he’s alleging.”
The trial will resume at 9 a.m. Tuesday and is expected to last three weeks.