ADA ACTION: How the DOJ stopped a Florida school district that abused disabled children

How the DOJ stopped a Florida school district that abused disabled children

A Florida School district has reached a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice after an investigation into allegations of physical and verbal abuse of students with disabilities in Okaloosa County, actions that violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

According to the Justice Department, the Okaloosa County School District also used discriminatory disciplinary measures like seclusion and restraint on the children.

“The district secluded and restrained students before first attempting appropriate behavior-management or de-escalation strategies,” the DOJ’s Office of Public Affairs wrote in a statement. “As a result of these practices, some students with disabilities were injured, and others lost many hours of class time.”

As part of the agreement, the Florida school district has agreed to do a better job of addressing complaints and insuring compliance with Title II of the ADA, which was revised in 2011 and prohibits discrimination against disabled persons in local, state, and federal entities.

Schools around the country have come under recent fire after revelations that special needs children are being arrested and suspended at an alarming and disproportionate rate.

Not all disabilities are immediately evident. For instance, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders are on the rise, the Boston Herald reported.

In a report by the Newman, Massachusetts-based advocacy group Ruderman Family Foundation, author Kristina Kopic urged putting an end to the school-to-prison pipeline for students with special needs through intervention and the implementation of alternative disciplinary strategies.

“We are dealing with a systemic issue, and one that is systematically depriving children with non-apparent disabilities of their civil rights,” Kopic said.

Kopic is a firm believer that treatment and support, not incarceration, is what the children are in need of most.

Evaluation and reporting of the use of restraint, if it was justified, and investigations of accusations that employees abused its implementation are just a few of the changes listed on the Justice Department’s website that Okaloosa County School District has promised to make.

Located on the panhandle side of Florida, Okaloosa County School District promised to overhaul the complaint process, provide better training of school staff, and conduct a thorough vetting of new hires, in addition to providing resources that will aid district employees in their decision-making with regard to handling discipline and accusations of abuse.

Effective de-escalation measures in the district will be instrumental in making the necessary changes to the barbaric practices of both restraint and seclusion of disabled children.

The Educational Opportunities Section (EOS) of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice defines seclusion as “the involuntary confinement of a student alone in any room or area.”

“We cannot stand by and watch schools put children with disabilities in seclusion thousands of times and call it public education.” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said.

“All children deserve an opportunity to learn and thrive in a safe and supportive environment. Schools must provide students with disabilities appropriate educational supports  and cannot resort to practices that physically and mentally harm them. The Justice Department will vigorously pursue allegations of abuse and unlawful restraint and seclusion of students and will not stand by when their rights are infringed,”  Clarke continued.

United States Attorney Jason R. Coody applauded the district’s cooperation in the Dept. of Justice’s probe.

“We also commend the Okaloosa County School District for agreeing to remedy the problems brought to light by the department’s investigation, by employing effective and non-discriminatory tools and protocols when handling behavioral matters in its schools,” Coody said.

Enforcement of Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act falls under the jurisdiction of the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ.

Reports of an increase in unacceptable disciplinary measures and inappropriate handling of children with physical, mental, behavioral, and developmental disabilities have shined a light on an issue that has been ignored and overlooked for far too long.

The settlement reached between the Florida school district and federal prosecutors is a step in the right direction to seeing an end to the discrimination heaped on an already marginalized and vulnerable community.

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Ty Ross

News journalist for Washington Press and Occupy Democrats.