An Aiken County parent is seeking legal action against Chukker Creek Elementary School and the Aiken County Public School District for what she alleges as the inhumane treatment of her non-verbal autistic son.
Shaundra Mims, represented by Tyler D. Bailey of Bailey Law Firm LLC, filed the lawsuit Feb. 28 after allegedly discovering her 9-year-old son was placed in a seclusion room by his teachers without her knowledge.
The lawsuit alleges the school was negligent and reckless in their use of seclusion and restraint to silence, detain, isolate and punish the plaintiff's child and other students under their care.
The lawsuit further alleges the school used highly discredited techniques and negligently and recklessly repeatedly restrained and secluded the plaintiff's child and other unsuspecting vulnerable minor elementary school students countless times.
“We have filed this lawsuit to hold the defendants accountable for their inexcusable treatment of (the plaintiff's child)," Bailey said. "Children should never be secluded and locked away alone in a prison cell like room and especially not by their teachers, individuals trusted to care for them. (The plaintiff's child) was subject to treatment more in tune with conduct used to control prisoners than elementary school students. The defendants have ignored their sacred duties as educators, and we intend to hold them accountable for their conduct and their betrayal of public trust."
Mims said the incident happened Feb. 21. That day, she posted a photo on social media of her son crying in a room allegedly at Chukker Creek Elementary School, which stirred discussion regarding the use of isolation rooms in the school.
Large volumes of discussion on social media led Chukker Creek Elementary School and the Aiken County Public School District to comment on the situation Feb. 21.
"We are aware of the social media post that’s gaining traction throughout our community regarding a student behavioral incident at our school today," Chukker Creek Elementary School posted on its Facebook page Feb 21. "As you know, due to federal laws prohibiting release of protected student information, we are unable to provide specific details related to today’s incident that’s being inaccurately portrayed on social media. The incident in question has been investigated by local law enforcement, as well as our school and district. Our investigation and that of law enforcement has indicated no wrongful action on the part of our teacher or the educational aide."
On Feb. 26, the Aiken County School District said the room in the classroom at Chukker Creek Elementary School does have a window in the door.
There is a shade on the window accessible by the adult assisting the student in crisis, the school district confirmed.
Residue seen on the walls in the photo circulated on social media is residue left behind from adhesives which previously held soft materials in place on the wall, the district said in a statement.
An incident report filed through the Aiken Department of Public Safety on Feb. 21 stated "there wasn't anything criminally done in regards to the incident."
"Aiken County Public Schools does not promote the use of seclusion in our district and there are no spaces currently being used for the purpose of seclusionary time out in ACPSD (Aiken County Public School District)," according to a statement from the district on March 2.
South Carolina law does not currently ban the use of seclusion in public schools but the S.C. Department of Education restricts its use to extraordinary circumstances which include when a student poses a threat of imminent, serious, physical harm to his/herself and/or others, and the student has the ability to cause such harm.
"In Aiken County, a student posing an imminent threat to self or others (in crisis) is supported by a trained employee for de-escalation. De-escalation is not a means of discipline or punishment for misbehavior," the Aiken County Public School District said in a statement on March 2. "Depending on the physical location of the student during his/her crisis and the school facility, a safe location for the student to deescalate could be an empty classroom, a school staff member’s office, or an identified space free of items or furniture that could be utilized by the student in crisis to harm him/herself or others."
Details shared in lawsuit
The complaint filed states that in September 2019 the plaintiff began noticing her son was performing badly in school in comparison to the prior school year.
The plaintiff's son, described in the complaint as having a severe intellectual disability and non-verbal autistic, was in a class that consisted of approximately 24 students, according to the complaint.
The plaintiff reached out to the juvenile's teacher to inquire whether an aide was in the classroom to assist the child and if any other measures were being used to ensure her son was staying on track with his schooling.
The teacher informed Mims that her son did not have an aide in his classroom but was trying to help him as much as possible along with 24 other students, the complaint filed states.
In November 2019, the plaintiff requested a meeting with the staffing coordinator for Aiken County Public Schools about changing her child's teacher.
The complaint states the plaintiff stated in the event that a teacher change could not be made, she could arrange for family members to sit in the classroom with the child to help him with his work so his grades would improve.
On or around Nov. 18, 2019, the school's assistant principal contacted the plaintiff and informed her they were able to implement a better plan that would allow the student to complete his work and would accommodate an "alternate location" for the child to go to when he needed a few minutes to calm himself down.
According to the complaint filed, no further details were given to the plaintiff about the alternate location.
On Feb. 21, the child's grandmother went to Chukker Creek Elementary School to visit the plaintiff's child and help him with his schoolwork, the complaint filed states.
When the child's grandmother arrived at the school, she was escorted to what she was told was a time out room where her grandson was located.
Upon reaching the room, the child's grandmother reported seeing her grandson alone in a small room that resembled a prison cell, the complaint filed states.
"There was one small window to the room that was covered and (an individual) was standing in front of the door to the seclusion room so the (plaintiff's child) could not get out," the complaint filed reads. (The grandmother) couldn't see inside the room through the window because it was covered."
The child's grandmother took a photo of her grandson after instructing (the individual) to move from the door, according to the complaint.
"Upon opening the door, (the grandmother) observed (the plaintiff's child) alone in the room, laying on the ground, shaking and pealing (sic) his lips," the complaint states.
The complaint alleges the defendants did not notify the plaintiff that her son was being subject to seclusion.
"Upon information and belief, defendants have used seclusion on (the plaintiff's child) on numerous occasions without notifying his mother, the complaint states.
State guidelines on seclusion
The S.C. Department of Education provides guidelines for policies and procedures regarding the practices of seclusion and restraint.
Seclusion is defined as the involuntary confinement of a student alone in a room or area where the student is prevented from leaving.
The S.C. Department of Education considers seclusion as one component of an array of practices known as time out from positive reinforcement or more commonly referred to simply as "time out."
However, guidelines by the S.C. Department of Education note that seclusion is not a recommended practice and there is no evidence that seclusion is effective as an intervention.
Guidelines further state the practice of seclusion may increase the likelihood of escalation of behavior, resulting in increased possibility of physical restraint.
"Many of these concerns stem from the abuse of seclusion within school settings across the country, including instances where students have died or been injured both physically and emotionally during seclusion," the S.C. Department of Education guidelines state. "Further, the use of seclusion may violate constitutional rights of students, as well as basic human rights. Due to these concerns and the potential abuse of seclusion practices (and the resulting potential for litigation), the S.C. Department of Education strongly discourages (Local Education Agencies) from placing students in seclusion under any circumstances."
Among several guidelines stated by the S.C. Department of Education, seclusion should never be used as a punishment, to force compliance or as a substitute for appropriate educational support.
While in seclusion, the student must be observed by staff both visually and audibly during all times.
Documentation must be kept in the student's educational file and notice must be sent home to the student's parent by the end of the next school day.
An administrator must attempt to contact the student's parent(s) on the day the seclusion occurs.