Complaint alleges West Warwick and North Kingstown schools used excess physical restraint
A 6-year old was physically restrained 45 times so far this school year.
An 8-year old special needs student jumped out a window to escape restraint.
A 10-year old with autism was forced to the floor and held in a prone position.
Those were among the allegations in complaints filed Friday with the U.S. Department of Justice against the North Kingstown and West Warwick school districts by the American Civil Liberties Union Rhode Island Chapter and Rhode Island Legal Services.
“It is a red flag to change course when a child is being restrained multiple times,” ACLU Rhode Island attorney Ellen Saidemann said in a news release. “Using restraints can cause post-traumatic stress disorder as well as physical injuries.
“Children have died from the use of prone restraints, a restraint used for at least one of these students.”
Under federal law, students may be physically restrained only to prevent them from causing imminent harm to themselves or others. According to the U.S. Department of Education, repeated use of restraints on a student may indicate inadequate care by the institution and potentially cause harm to students’ mental, physical, and emotional health.
The complaints were filed on behalf of four families with children at Greenbush Elementary School in West Warwick and Davisville Academy in North Kingstown. Two of the children involved are aged 6 and 8, and the other two are 10 years old.
C.T., who was restrained 45 times, had behavioral issues before enrolling at Greenbush earlier in this school year. C.T. had previously attended a preschool and worked with a one-on-one aide accused of sexual abuse, though it is unknown whether C.T. had been abused.
“There have been a few instances where C.T. has come home with bruises and bumps, including an incident involving a staff member allegedly ‘banging C.T. on the head,’” the complaint reads. “There have also been times where C.T. has had bathroom accidents because students in active restraint are not allowed to use the facilities.
“C.T.’s parents note that their child’s behavior has worsened since entering Greenbush,” the complaint continues. “They have kept C.T. home as the school has been unwilling to discuss alternatives to C.T.’s placement and they do not feel he is safe at Greenbush.”
West Warwick Public Schools Superintendent Karen Tarasevich briefly acknowledged the case in an email to Rhode Island Current.
“Today, West Warwick Public Schools was made aware of a complaint filed by RI Legal Services and the ACLU of Rhode Island regarding crisis intervention of students with special education needs,” she said. “The safety of our students is our top priority. Accordingly, we ensure our faculty and staff have the updated certification and training needed to respond safely and appropriately to any escalating scenario, meeting all of RIDE’s requirements.”
The complaint also alleged that an 8-year-old first grader at Davisville Elementary School in North Kingstown was restrained 25 times, despite having “thrived” at a private special education institution in Narragansett the previous year.
“T.E. would come home sometimes with bruises, and as a result of these restraints, he developed anxiety around going to school,” the complaint reads. “He reverted back to bed wetting and began to urinate on himself at school.
“There was also at least one occasion in which T.E. jumped out of a window and ran almost to the street before being caught.”
The North Kingstown School District did not respond to requests for comments.
According to the ACLU, Davisville Academy recorded 102 restraint incidents focused on six children while Greenbush reported 546 involving 22 children in the 2021 to 2022 school year.
Both the ACLU and Rhode Island Legal Services expressed hope their efforts will motivate the Department of Justice to investigate the school systems for violations under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
The complaints also seek compensatory education, mental health counseling, changes to school procedures, greater oversight and accountability, and the elimination of restraint as a punishment.
“Repeated restraint creates an ever-escalating situation with a potential for high risk of mental trauma and physical injury,” said Veronika Kott, an attorney with Rhode Island Legal Services.
“This is why it should never be normalized or used as punishment and why the law only permits its use where there is imminent risk of harm to self or others.”