Arbitrators have awarded $900,000 to a family that sued the Clark County, Nev., district after their son was restrained repeatedly during the 2011-12 school year‐some of which was caught on videocameras that had been hidden in the classroom by school district police officers.
Clark County, the nation’s 5th largest school district, includes Las Vegas and surrounding areas. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that the settlement with John and Dina Phipps was reached at the end of May, bringing to an end a long-running and complicated case that had prompted both a federal and a state lawsuit.
Legal filings in the case spell out some of the details: In 2012, the Phipps’ son was attending Variety School, a special education school for students with severe disabilities. He was in a classroom with six other children, all of whom, like him, were nonverbal.
The Phipps noticed rug burns and bruises on their son, but was told that their son was causing his own injuries. Separately, however, the parent of another student in the classroom went to the district’s police force with similar complaints about recurring injuries to a student in the class. On a Friday in March 2012, without telling any of the parents, the school district police installed cameras in the classroom that could be watched off-site. On Monday, no one watched the feed.
On Tuesday, however, what police saw prompted them to arrest a teacher’s aide the same day.
Lachelle James, the aide, was seen dragging Phipps’ son to the ground and pinning him with her knees and elbows. He “did not appear to be resisting or combative,” the arrest report read, but he did look like he was crying. At one point, he crawled under a table, only to be dragged back to the center of the room by James, according to police reports cited in the legal filing.
The cameras also caught James shoving another student without provocation. And, upon viewing all of the captured video, police saw three other restraint incidents involving the Phipps’ son. James eventually would go on to plead guilty to misdemeanor child abuse and was sentenced to probation. When interviewed, James said she was following the training given by the district. The family submitted depositions of other classroom teachers that said the Phipps’ son was restrained multiple times a day, that the restraints were not fully documented, and that no classroom teacher reported James to authorities.
Video Evidence Was Key to the Case, Lawyer Says
The settlement amount appears to be one of the largest against a school district in this type of case. Back in 2013, a jury awarded a Texas family $1 million after their son was injured by a teacher. (The mother in that case, Breggett Rideau, would later go on to argue successfully for a law requiring cameras to be installed in self-contained special education classrooms at parent request.) That verdict was believed to be among the largest of its kind.
Without the video, this case would never have come out, said Robert Murdock, who represented the parents in the case. “I’m hopeful that what the school district said is correct, and this will never happen again,” he said in an interview. Murdock added that the student at the center of the case is no longer enrolled in the district.
The Clark County School District released this statement to Education Week on the settlement: “The safety of our students, especially our most vulnerable students, is a top priority for the Clark County School District. CCSD actively provides Crisis Prevention Intervention training for all employees on appropriate restraining methods. This training meets the requirements of state statutes. The training includes methods to verbally deescalate a student, as well as proper holds to ensure the safety of all involved. CCSD will continue to work to put in systems and provide training to ensure employees are equipped to handle all situations with students, including special needs students.”
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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.