Justices Decline School District’s Appeal in ‘Isolation Room’ Case

By Mark Walsh — February 21, 2012 2 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to hear the appeal of a Washington state school district in a lawsuit brought by a mother challenging the use of an ‘isolation room’ for her autistic child.

The Peninsula school district was seeking review of a federal appeals court decision that revived the mother’s lawsuit alleging violations of the U.S. Constitution and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

An en banc panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled 8-3 last year that because the mother’s suit raised constitutional claims in addition to claims under the federal special education law, the suit did not have to exhaust administrative remedies under the IDEA.

The mother’s lawsuit challenges the Peninsula district’s use of an isolation room for her 7-year-old son, identified in court papers as D.P. The boy’s teacher used a small “safe room” to give students timeouts when they misbehaved.

D.P.'s parents initially gave grudging consent to placing their son in the safe room as part of his individualized education plan. However, they objected after D.P. was locked in the room several times and urinated and defecated on himself, the suit contends.

Both a federal district court and a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit had ruled that the mother failed to exhaust administrative remedies under the IDEA. But the larger 9th Circuit panel, in a decision last July, ordered the district court to allow the mother to amend her suit to flesh out her claims that the boy’s treatment violated the Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Then, the district court must decide whether those claims are related to the IDEA and require administrative “exhaustion,” the appeals panel said. The 9th Circuit majority said it was not ruling on whether the lawsuit’s underlying claims that the use of the isolation room violated civil rights had merit.

The Obama administration sided with the family at the 9th Circuit, though it did not chime in when the Peninsula district appealed to the Supreme Court.

The district argued that the federal appeals courts are divided on the test for deciding whether a civil-rights lawsuit is seeking relief that is also available under the IDEA. It also said that the 9th Circuit’s decision “threatens to undermine the purposes behind IDEA’s system of administrative remedies.”

The district was joined at the high court by the National School Boards Association, which argued in a friend-of-the-court brief that the 9th Circuit ruling nullifies the intent of Congress, which included the exhaustion requirement in the special education law to encourage parents and districts to work together to resolve disputes.

Lawyers for the mother said in their brief that the 9th Circuit decision did not truly create a circuit conflict.

The justices declined without comment to hear the district’s appeal in Peninsula School District v. Payne (Case No. 11-539).

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.