By the time the last bell rang at Ridgeview Elementary in September 2018, a 6-year-old child had been locked in the so-called "safe room" for three hours.
Earlier that day, Principal Melinda Keberle and an assistant principal had grabbed the student, who is developmentally disabled, and put him in there because he had tried to hit and kick staff members. They then guarded the door so he couldn't get out, according to a lawsuit filed in Spokane County Superior Court.
If the child, whom the Inlander is not naming, banged on the door and screamed, they wouldn't let him out. When he was calm, they still refused to let him out, court records allege.
Finally, at 4:45 pm, the child's grandmother forced the school to let him out of the room, records show.
He'd been in isolation for nearly five hours.
The family, through their attorney, declined to comment. Keberle remains principal at Ridgeview Elementary and, in a statement, says she did "nothing improper" and her actions were consistent with district policy regarding isolation.
In July, the Inlander also detailed a $135,000 settlement stemming from a situation at Arlington Elementary in which a student was repeatedly put in isolation for hours at a time during the 2016-17 school year.
"In addition, SPS teachers and administrators continue to be trained on trauma-informed practices," the district says in a statement to the Inlander. "SPS has also added school psychologists and behavior analysts to provide the extra supports needed to ensure students have the wraparound services needed to be successful in the classroom."
Still, Marcus Sweetser, the attorney representing the student families in both cases, calls the Ridgeview case "tragic," and notes that prolonged isolation can have lasting impacts for young children.
Yet in this case and others, students were allegedly locked in isolation rooms against their will — sometimes for hours at a time — when they were not a threat. The state has previously knocked Spokane Public Schools for "overusing" isolation and restraint.
The incident with the 6-year-old first-grade student at Ridgeview happened at the start of the school year. Afterward, Spokane Public Schools conducted an investigation that found larger problems, including that Keberle ran the school with a "culture of fear," according to a report by a guardian ad litem filed in Spokane County Superior Court.
"The investigation revealed teachers were shocked by the principal's abuse of power, but were too afraid to confront her," court documents say.
The same report documented how teachers had concerns about the use of isolation and feared retaliation for speaking up. Keberle "sought to target and intimidate" teachers and staff who complained, court documents show, and teachers said Keberle "pulled teachers and staff aside to determine who may have been reporting isolation and restraint numbers" to OSPI. Reporting isolation and restraint numbers is required under state law.
Spokane Public Schools spokesperson Sandra Jarrard did not answer Inlander questions regarding the internal investigation. Keberle notes that the state OSPI did an investigation that did not lead to any discipline for her.
"I love my job, and I'm proud to serve my community as an educator and provide a safe learning environment for all students," Keberle says.
Dan Ophardt, attorney for child advocacy group TeamChild, says the case is indicative of the need for Spokane Public Schools to hold individuals accountable to the public commitments made by the school district. He notes that before becoming principal at Ridgeview, Keberle was principal at Eagle Peak School, an alternative program for kids with behavioral issues that was shuttered following criticism over its isolation and restraint practices.
"The administration at Ridgeview has its history at Eagle Peak, and Eagle Peak has left a legacy of enormous impact of isolation and restraint and exclusionary discipline that students who survived it are still feeling," Ophardt says.
Based on the facts of the Ridgeview case, Ophardt says there "absolutely" should have been discipline for those involved.
"When students enter Spokane Public Schools, they need to be given a shot and an opportunity," he says.