Parents consider lawsuit as lawmakers weigh in on 'isolation booths'

Parents consider lawsuit as lawmakers weigh in on 'isolation booths'
A photo posted to Facebook shows the isolation box at Mint Valley Elementary School in Longview, Wash. It was removed in December.

LONGVIEW, Wash. – The families of three children who were put in a so-called “isolation booth” inside a Longview school have indicated they plan to sue the school district.

The notice of the potential lawsuit comes as lawmakers in Washington consider legislation that would force schools to notify parents when their children are held in these isolation rooms.

Isolation booths are small, padded boxes or rooms that some schools use to pacify or punish special-needs students who are acting out. Their use came to light in Longview last November with a series of stories reported by KATU News.

Now an attorney for the families has filed a “tort notice,” which is a legal notification that says they are exploring a lawsuit against the public school district.

Court papers filed with the notice say the parents never gave permission for their kids to be put in the isolation room and that the experience traumatized the students. It doesn’t say how much money the families might seek, but does say they’d seek compensation for emotional distress and punitive damages.

On Thursday morning, the House Education Committee in Washington overwhelmingly supported a bill that requires schools to notify parents when they use isolation booths.

“Most people feel like this is a bill that we should have in place,” said Rep. Monica Stonier, a Democrat from Clack County. “Because many districts and buildings already have policies like this in place, it’s not a shock to anybody that we want good communication between schools and families and that many of our districts have been working in that way for a long time.”

The law would also require schools to make a written report each time they use an isolation booth and then keep those files at each school. The bill's sponsors expect it to pass the full legislature and become law.

Candace Dawson, one of the parents who filed the lawsuit notice, said she’s glad lawmakers are taking some action, although she thinks there needs to be more oversight to make sure each school follows the law.

Salem, Ore. psychologist Tim Murphy co-authored a book about seclusion and restraint. He believes the proposed law alone isn't enough to ensure isolation booths won't be misused.

"I think a whole lot of work ought to be done on the front, enough to avoid using isolation rooms," Murphy said. "I really don't think they're helpful. I think alternatives ought to be worked out."

The Longview School District stopped using isolation booths at the end of November and dismantled the booth at Mint Valley Elementary School in December. They have since replaced it with a less-restrictive “isolation area” that includes a bean bag chair for children to sit on.