The Hawaii Department of Education did not discriminate against an autistic preschool student who was placed in a specialized chair and fastened with a seat belt during school hours, a federal jury decided Monday.
The child, identified as “M.R.” in court documents, was enrolled in special education preschool at Koko Head Elementary from August 2013 to October 2015.
A February 2016 lawsuit filed by Maria Therese Ricks, the child’s mother, against then-Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi and other DOE officials, including the principal and the department head of special education at the school, alleged that the minor was put in a specialized Rifton chair as “a means of restraining” him.
“This particular form of discipline and/or restraint was not consistent with M.R.’s IEP (Individualized Education Program) and had never been agreed to/and or approved by plaintiff,” the complaint stated.
The Rifton chair in question was a solid wooden chair with armrests and a back to support the child’s body, and included a seat belt, according to court documents.
Ricks claimed that school officials used the chair as “a restraint” and as “punishment” against her son and that it caused him “physical pain and enormous emotional distress.”
Joy Yoshimura, Koko Head’s special education department head and the minor’s special ed teacher at the time, said M.R. — who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age 3 — was placed in the chair once or twice a week to support him during classroom activities and so he could eat at a table without falling forward from lethargy and weakness, according to court documents.
Yoshimura said the seat belt was used only to prevent the child from falling, and that when the belt was in use, there was always an adult by his side. The belt was used no more than 10 times total, school officials said.
They said the chair was used to support the child because he was “lethargic and weak due to his poor diet and sleep deprivation.”
In March, U.S. District Judge Helen Gillmor tossed out part of the lawsuit, including claims for assault and battery against Yoshimura and claims of negligent infliction of emotional distress against eight defendants.
That left one cause of action remaining, an allegation that M.R. was denied “meaningful access to a public education on account of his disability” in violation of the Rehabilitation Act. The law prohibits discrimination against any disabled person by a program that receives federal financial assistance.
“Our position was that the chair was used only on a handful of occasions when the boy was so weak and lethargic that he could not sit in a regular classroom chair and therefore could not participate in individual or group activities or therapy,” said Kendall K. Moser, a deputy state attorney general that defended DOE in the case.
A 10-member jury sat through a six-day trial and deliberated for a couple hours Monday before finding the DOE had not violated the Rehabilitation Act.
Eric Seitz, the Honolulu attorney who represented Ricks, disparaged the outcome, saying the jury and judge in the case gave a “green light to … abuse.”
“In this case an autistic, non-verbal 4-year-old was strapped into a chair, for no apparent reason other than what the teacher described as lethargy,” Seitz said in an email. “(The minor) was in no way a danger to himself or others directly violating his rights.”
The Hawaii Legislature in 2014 passed a law prohibiting use ofseclusion and restraints in public schools, but it didn’t actually take effect until August 2016, and thus couldn’t be used to demonstrate a violation in the case at hand, Gillmor found in her March order.
Facts in dispute ahead of trial included when exactly the Rifton chair was first used with M.R., when the minor’s mother first became aware of use of the chair and when she first objected to DOE officials.
In court testimony, Yoshimura argued that even though Ricks had observed her son in the chair during an end-of-year school ceremony in June 2014, she “did not object to its use” or remove him from the chair or tell any DOE employee she had a problem with it.
Ricks withdrew her son from Koko Head Elementary in October 2015 and enrolled him in Pacific Autism Center, according to the complaint.
The DOE has not commented on the suit’s outcome.