Spokane Public Schools pays $150k to family of first-grader held in isolation room for nearly 5 hours

click to enlarge Spokane Public Schools pays $150k to family of first-grader held in isolation room for nearly 5 hours
Wilson Criscione photo
In 2018, a 6-year-old was put in an isolation room at Ridgeview Elementary for hours.

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.

As this was happening, teachers questioned whether this was legal, court documents say, but they felt powerless to overrule the principal. When the child's grandfather arrived to pick him up from school, Keberle "ordered staff to close the blinds and lock the door to the safety room," and told staff not to tell the grandfather where his grandson was, according to a report filed in court.

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 case, which the Inlander learned of recently through a public records request, represents yet another example of what experts have called misuse of isolation rooms in the district up until this school year. And this particular case sparked a lawsuit that resulted in a $150,000 settlement from the school district last fall.

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.

Spokane Public Schools has since promised changes. In a statement, it says that starting this school year, no school in the district has an isolation room.

"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.

"It was one of the first times I had encountered this issue, and I thought maybe it was an isolated incident at the time," Sweetser says. "Of course, then, we heard about it more."

Isolation or restraint of students is prohibited under state law unless the student poses an imminent likelihood of serious harm. The U.S. Department of Education has said that restraint and isolation should be avoided "to the greatest extent possible" and used only in safety emergencies.

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.

During the 2018-19 school year, Ridgeview Elementary documented 523 isolation incidents, according to data from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. That raw number is the third most isolation incidents of any school in Washington during that year.

"These students get in this position because they've got some sort of behavioral thing going on," Sweetser says. "And they're supposed to be getting help in the public school system." 

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 b
efore 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.

Either way, Sweetser says he's glad that the school district has since committed to getting rid of isolation rooms.

"When students enter Spokane Public Schools, they need to be given a shot and an opportunity," he says. 

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About The Author

Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione is the Inlander’s news editor. Aside from writing and editing investigative news stories, he enjoys hiking, watching basketball and spending time with his wife and cat.