SEATTLE — A lawsuit from the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union accuses the state of failing to ensure that students with behavioral disabilities get an education instead of just kicked out of school.
The complaint, filed Thursday in Thurston County Superior Court, says the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction has a duty to ensure that all children receive a public education, including those who have behavioral problems related to conditions such as bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or Asperger’s syndrome.
Instead, the lawsuit says, districts across the state suspend and expel special-education students at more than twice the rate of their peers — and further, school officials often send the children to “time-out” rooms or have their parents pick them up early, which results in their exclusion from an educational setting.
Special-education students make up 14 percent of the state’s students, but nearly 30 percent of suspended and expelled students, the ACLU said.
The lawsuit seeks class-action status on behalf of special-education students in the Yakima and Pasco school districts. The ACLU says those districts suspend or expel special-education students at especially high rates.
A spokesman for the state superintendent’s office, Nathan Olson, said in an email that officials received the complaint Thursday.
“Agency lawyers are currently reviewing the details. (The state superintendent’s office) is dedicated to the success and well-being of all Washington students,” Olson said.
Pasco School District spokesman Shane Edinger said in an email that the district has not been contacted directly by the ACLU, or any parents, regarding any litigation.
“We are unable to comment on a particular student’s educational program or records due to federal and state laws that protect student privacy. We take our responsibilities under state and federal law to educate all of our students very seriously, and the safety of our students is our highest priority,” Edinger said.
Techniques such as positive behavioral interventions and approaches to handling students that reflect the difficulties they may be facing can dramatically reduce the need for suspensions or expulsions, the lawsuit said, but the state has not made resources or training in those techniques adequately available to districts around the state.
It also suggests that districts should individually tailor their responses to behavioral problems special-education students depending on their specific needs.
The lawsuit cites the cases of five special-needs students in particular, identifying them by their initials. They include a 13-year-old Yakima boy excluded for 52 school days over the past two years due to outbursts related to his bipolar disorder and other conditions.
The complaint alleges that he has been disciplined and even physically restrained for trying to board a school bus with his classmates and refusing to change out of his gym clothes.
Another plaintiff is an 8-year-old Yakima boy with Asperger’s syndrome and gastro-intestinal issues. During the 2015-16 school year, he was denied recess for taking too long in the bathroom due to his gastro-intestinal issues, was repeatedly suspended for disrupting class, and was sent home early from school at least three times every week, the lawsuit said.