Monroe schools mistreated autistic boy, mother alleges in lawsuit

MONROE — The mother of an autistic boy is suing the Monroe School District in federal court for allegedly imposing harsh punishments on him and violating his right to a public education.

The 9-year-old boy’s mother filed the lawsuit Dec. 23 in U.S. District Court in Seattle. She claims the district failed to follow personalized plans to educate her son, handle his behavior and appropriately discipline him, when necessary.

In court filings, the district has contended that the woman’s complaints are “legally and factually insufficient.” But last week U.S. District Judge John Coughenour denied the district’s request to dismiss the case. A jury trial is scheduled for March 14, 2016.

Donald Austin, an attorney for the district, said the mother’s complaints are inaccurate. He plans to file an answer to the woman’s claims within the next two weeks.

“We don’t think anything was done to harm the boy, and that’s something we’ll demonstrate,” he said.

The boy was enrolled in a special education program for children with behavioral problems and over time attended two Monroe elementary schools. The Herald is not naming him or his mother to protect his privacy.

School staff members allegedly held the boy down or locked him alone in closets and vacant offices when he had behavioral problems, according to the lawsuit. Such actions were to be taken as a last resort, according to the boy’s personal education plans, but those measures were employed prematurely and were overly severe, the suit alleges.

The mother also claims the school district failed to accurately document the discipline and did not notify her of problems.

The lawsuit says the school district’s actions violated the boy’s right to equal access to a public education under federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Autism is considered a disability.

The school district contends that the boy was restrained because he was “aggressive, disruptive, and assaulted students and staff,” according to the court documents, and that employees followed the law in disciplining the boy.

Along with the district and the Monroe School Board, the list of defendants includes Superintendent Ken Hoover, Director of Student Services Lara Cole, Salem Woods Elementary School Principal Janna Dmochowsky and special education teachers Melissa Hart and Mairead Kinney. The five board members are Katy Woods, Jason Hutchinson, Nancy Truitt Pierce, Darcy Chessman and Jim Scott.

Brian Krikorian, an attorney for the mother, said the district was locking the boy up and holding him down as punishment for behavior caused by his autism. He likened that to a doctor punishing a patient for kicking after being hit with a reflex hammer.

“The only way he knows how to communicate is to get upset,” Krikorian said. “That’s just his reaction.”

The holds and seclusions were supposed to be used only to prevent the boy from harming himself or others, Krikorian said — not as punishments.

The alleged problems began in the fall of 2013 when the boy was assigned to a classroom at Chain Lake Elementary School, and they continued after the boy was moved to Salem Woods Elementary School. That November, he was removed from school. He has been home-schooled and tutored since.

His mother is seeking damages for physical and emotional injuries as well as punitive damages and wants the district to pay for private schooling and attorney fees.

Before suing, the mother filed a complaint with the state Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction.

The state superintendent in 2014 ordered corrective action after concluding that the district did not implement the boy’s education plan and that employees failed to document their decisions. The district has complied with the orders, except for having the boy re-evaluated upon his return to school, state officials said. He has not re-enrolled, so the district was unable to comply with that part of the order.

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; anile@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @AmyNileReports.

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