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Teen’s death after 105-minute prone restraint fuels ADA, Section 504 suit

April 19, 2021

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By: Lily Crespo Esq.

Quick takeaway: As schools return to normal schedules. this case provides a timely reminder on the importance of training personnel on appropriate restraint techniques. Although there may be times restraint is necessary to ensure the safety of both students and staff, districts must keep the safety of the student paramount. Failure to do so may expose them to liability under both ADA Title II and Section 504. While it may have been necessary to restrain this student during a behavioral incident, it was unlikely that such a restraint was needed for nearly two hours. This case underscores that districts should emphasize during training proper restraint techniques and only utilizing the restraint for the minimum time necessary under the circumstances which necessitated the restraint.

What happened: A special needs student at Guiding Hands School, a former private school in El Dorado Hills, California, died while in the school’s care. The school’s executive director, principal and a special education teacher were each charged with manslaughter in connection to the student’s death. According to the investigation conducted by the California Department of Education, which afterwards suspended Guiding Hands School’s certification, Max Benson was held in a prone restraint for an extended period of time, and was forced to urinate on himself and vomit.

Special education case ruling: The U.S. District Court, Eastern District of California determined that the parents of nine students with disabilities provided enough facts to assert that a private school contracted by the state department of education to provide special education services violated ADA Title II and Section 504 by implementing a prone restraint that resulted in the death of a 13-year-old student with autism and other disabilities. The court dismissed some of the parents’ claims against the private school staff and other state employees but denied the school and the state ED’s motion to dismiss as to the parents’ disability discrimination claims.

Summary of the case: Despite some technical issues with their lawsuit, the parents of nine students with disabilities will be able to proceed with their civil action against a California private school contracted by the state department of education to provide special education services. The U.S. District Court, Eastern District of California denied the school and the state ED’s motion to dismiss the parents’ ADA Title II and Section 504 claims. During a behavioral incident, a school staff member placed a 13-year-old student with autism and other disabilities in a prone, face-down restraint for nearly two hours, which ultimately resulted in the teen’s death. A group of parents of students with disabilities at the school sued the school and the state ED, asserting, among other claims, that the state ED discriminated against students with disabilities by failing to supervise and investigate the school’s disproportionate use of restraint on students with disabilities, which violated ADA Title II and Section 504.

The court explained that to establish a violation of these two laws, the parents had to show that:

  • their children were individuals with a disability;
  • the students were otherwise qualified to participate in or receive the benefit of a public entity’s services, programs, or activities;
  • they were either excluded from participation in or denied the benefits of the public entity’s services, programs, or activities or was otherwise discriminated against by the public entity; and
  • such exclusion, denial of benefits, or discrimination was solely by reason of her disability. It noted that the parents plausibly asserted that the state ED, despite receiving numerous behavioral emergency forms from the school, never initiated an investigation of the school’s practices as required by law.

This was enough to meet the elements of a disability discrimination claim, the court concluded.

What is the name of the case and where can you read it? The name of the case is Langley v. Guiding Hands Sch. Inc., 121 LRP 12147 (E.D. Cal. 03/30/21). Read it here.

As you consider these and other issues, we recommend you speak with your school lawyer or contact Bea, Kevin, Megan, Beth, and Lily by email or at 406-542-1300 to discuss these issues.

Kaleva Law

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