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Massachusetts family sues school district and staff after third-grader was repeatedly detained
Massachusetts family sues school district and staff after third-grader was repeatedly detained



CNN

A Massachusetts mother is suing her son’s former school district and several of its employees for allegedly repeatedly “brutally and improperly” restraining the then-8-year-old boy – including with a “gym mat,” according to a copy of the lawsuit obtained by CNN.

The boy, who is black and identified in the lawsuit by the initials “MW,” attended Glover Elementary School in Marblehead, Massachusetts, as a third-grader from September 2023 to March 2024 as part of the state’s voluntary school integration program called the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO).

CNN has agreed not to name the boy or his mother because the family is concerned about their son’s emotional health and well-being.

According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, nearly 83% of Glover Elementary School’s students were white and less than 2% were black during the 2023-2024 school year.

While attending school, the child was allegedly restrained by staff on multiple occasions. On those occasions, according to the lawsuit, they “forcibly grabbed him by the wrists,” “dragged him through the school hallways,” and on at least one occasion “encircled him with a large gym mat so that he was forcibly restrained,” and “transported” him and left him “isolated in empty rooms.”

“The behavior of these employees caused MW great anxiety and caused him to have severe asthma attacks and vomiting,” the lawsuit states.

According to the lawsuit, MW was detained on December 6, 2023, “in three separate incidents” – including after an incident that “occurred because MW had a baseball bat and allegedly swung it at Defendant’s employees – a depiction that is not corroborated by video evidence.”

Later that same day, MW “had to be transported to the hospital by ambulance as an emergency because his asthma attack could not be brought under control,” the lawsuit states.

A school employee reportedly observed the incident and filed an anonymous complaint with the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF), a child protection agency, the lawsuit says.

Erika Richmond Walton, the family’s attorney, told CNN that the child’s mother withdrew him from school in March of this year.

“I want the district to be held accountable for what happened to my clients and the trauma they are still experiencing,” Richmond Walton said.

“We want to see a change in the way this district and other districts in Massachusetts treat black and Latino children. We also want reform of Massachusetts’ coercive laws,” she said.

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has issued guidelines stating that restraint “should be limited to the reasonable use of force necessary to protect a student or other member of the school community from attack or imminent threat of serious physical harm.”

The lawsuit points out that regulations prohibit the use of physical force when a student cannot be safely restrained for medical reasons, such as asthma.

Four Glover Elementary School employees were placed on paid administrative leave in December while the school district reviewed its student retention policies, CNN affiliate WCVB reported, citing Theresa McGuinness, interim superintendent of Marblehead Public Schools.

According to WCVB, McGuinness said at the time that furloughing employees was “not punitive, but necessary during this process.”

CNN has reached out to the school district to confirm whether the furloughed employees were involved in the incidents named in the lawsuit. CNN was unable to confirm the current status of the four employees.

The lawsuit seeks damages from the city of Marblehead, the school district and individual employees in an amount to be determined at trial, as well as the deletion of the child’s student records.

In response to a question from CNN about the incidents between September and December, McGuinness issued a statement this month saying that when district leadership learned of the allegations, it “commissioned an external investigation into the matter and took appropriate action.”

“Marblehead Public Schools has been and will continue to be transparent throughout this difficult process,” McGuinness said in the statement.

“In addition, immediately after becoming aware of the matter in question, the District filed a 51A child abuse/neglect report with … (DCF), consistent with its role as a required reporter,” the statement said.

In response to a request from CNN, DCF confirmed that it had received a report and was investigating the case. Richmond Walton provided CNN with a copy of the DCF findings sent to the mother, which state that five allegations of neglect of her son were “substantiated.”

Three of the five nurses named in the DCF report are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The school district also hired an outside consulting firm to investigate a November incident in which staff allegedly “used a large, padded mat to restrain MW and control his movements,” the lawsuit states.

During the incident, the student began experiencing “symptoms of active asthma” and began vomiting. According to the lawsuit, “it was only then that a Glover Elementary School employee gave MW his inhaler.”

The independent investigators released a redacted report in March that matches the description of the Nov. 20 events presented in the complaint and states, among other things, that staff “transported” a student on a padded mat.

Richmond Walton confirmed to CNN that MW was the student referred to in the consulting firm’s report.

The report concluded: “The personnel involved in this incident … had an extremely difficult task. Some of the techniques used did not comply with the procedures described in the Safety Care training.”

The report also said that while school staff “had every right to use coercive measures” to prevent possible harm, “the method of coercion they chose was a violation of the rules of procedure.”

“The improvised restraint of (MW) with a mat placed an unreasonable burden on (MW) and was unnecessary to create a safe environment. In addition, the chosen restraint was not effective,” the report states, adding: “In the heat of the moment, (MW) was transported improperly.”

Investigators also concluded that the use of the mat in this incident… constituted a violation of the state’s ordinance prohibiting the use of “mechanical restraints… and isolation.”

In March, the district unveiled a new plan called “Restraint Response Plans…Our Way Forward” that outlines how it will handle student restrictions in the future.

Among other things, the plan requires all employees to attend training on coercive measures prevention and behavioral support, and that employees be debriefed after “every significant escalation” to “prevent and minimize future incidents.”

Richmond Walton said MW has since enrolled in another school but is still suffering from trauma as a result of the incidents.

In a statement released to CNN through her lawyer, the mother of the now nine-year-old said her son had great difficulty adjusting to the new school.

“The teachers say he is showing signs of trauma,” she said. “It’s very hard to see that my baby is not the same. I cry every day.”

According to a report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, “approximately 52,800 students in preschool through high school were physically or mechanically restrained and/or placed in solitary confinement” during the 2020-2021 school year.

While black students made up 15% of all public school students (grades 1-12) that same year, they represented 21% of physically restrained students, 42% of students restrained with devices or equipment, and 19% of students seized, according to the report.

Boys, black students, students of two or more races, and students with disabilities were also more likely to be affected by restraints, the report says.

Richmond Walton told CNN that the child’s mother believes her son’s race played a role in the repeated use of restraints.

“She’s almost 100 percent sure that if he was a white child, this wouldn’t have happened,” she said. Richmond Walton, however, said METCO should not take the blame, but that she believes the school district is responsible.

“Districts participating in the METCO program have an obligation to welcome and respect the children of color who attend these schools,” she said.

According to the state Department of Education, the METCO program is “a voluntary program designed to expand educational opportunities, increase diversity, and reduce racial isolation of students in urban and suburban communities.”

It allows children from Boston and Springfield to attend schools in other districts with greater resources. METCO currently serves approximately 3,200 students in 38 school districts in the Greater Boston area and outside of Springfield.

METCO President and CEO Milly Arbaje-Thomas said in a statement that the program remains focused on “equipping our METCO districts with the tools and resources they need to identify, respond to and repair racial harm in their communities.”

By Aurora