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Court Approves Resolution of Wide-Ranging Challenge to Physical Restraints and Seclusion of Special Education Students in California School

Settlement mandates greater oversight and focus on individualized student needs by the Contra Costa County Office of Education

The Floyd I. Marchus School is located in Concord, California.

CONCORD, CA, June 9, 2023 – Public Counsel and Sullivan & Cromwell LLP announced today that the Contra Costa County Superior Court approved a settlement agreement with the Contra Costa County Office of Education (“CCCOE”) to ensure that students with disabilities who attend the Floyd I. Marchus School (“Marchus”) are provided with the individualized supports and services that they need to learn, and to make sure teachers have the training they need to address behaviors without resorting to restraint and seclusion. Marchus is a Contra Costa County public school serving students with behavioral and emotional needs.

The settlement agreement requires CCCOE to cease certain practices and support initiatives promoting a more positive learning environment necessary to achieve the academic and social success of all students.  These initiatives include a three-tiered Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (“PBIS”) program and a Social Emotional Learning (“SEL”) curriculum. Both are designed to provide schoolwide and individual guidance to meet the unique needs of each student through tailored, individualized education programs.

Additionally, this settlement agreement, which resolves a May 2019 class-action lawsuit to stop the use of trauma-inducing and punitive interventions in non-emergency situations, builds on a September 2022 settlement agreement reached between the families of former Marchus students and the California Department of Education. Filed on behalf of four elementary-age students and their peers, the lawsuit sought to hold the California Department of Education and CCCOE accountable for allowing students to be subjected to unlawful restraint and seclusion practices. Additionally, it sought to ensure that students receive the education to which they are entitled in the least restrictive environment appropriate to their individualized needs. The agreement with CCCOE will add to the terms agreed upon in last year’s settlement with the State of California. 

“Without the courage of the families and students this agreement would not have been possible. They shared information about their experiences at Marchus because they wanted to make the school safer for everyone,” said Tara Ford, Senior Counsel at Public Counsel. “The terms of this settlement will allow for quality individualized education plans aimed at addressing the unique needs of each student. We applaud the Contra Costa County Office of Education for demonstrating a strong commitment to progress, and we hope this case serves as an example for other schools and states so that all children can learn safely in their classrooms.”

“Children with disabilities have a right to the same opportunities as every other student, and that includes learning in a nurturing environment where educators put children’s interests first,” said Elyse K., a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “This settlement will help ensure a safe, quality education for children at Marchus, and it will demonstrate to my children that we heard them and believed them, and that the friends they left behind when they left the school will be protected.” 

As part of the agreement with CCCOE, WestEd – a leading educational research, development, and service agency – will provide CCCOE with oversight and guidance throughout the PBIS program and implementation of the SEL curriculum. Over the next two years, WestEd will track and report on progress and further document and address the use of restraint and seclusion. Marchus will also establish a reporting system through which parents may submit requests for an investigation if they have ongoing concerns regarding the use of these practices at the school.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, more than 100,000 students are restrained or secluded each year. Several state legislatures, including New York and Connecticut, have recently introduced bills which would prohibit the use of some or all restraint and seclusion techniques and strengthen reporting requirements for greater oversight and transparency.

“These harmful disciplinary practices needed to stop, and we were proud to partner with Public Counsel to work together to foster a safer learning environment for students,” said Michael Steinberg, partner at Sullivan & Cromwell. “This settlement of our lawsuit, and the adoption of these reforms, demonstrates the CCCOE’s commitment to now take meaningful steps to improve their approach to education according to the needs of each individual student. This agreement, together with the unprecedented agreement with the California Department of Education last year, significantly prevents restraints and seclusion from being used against the most vulnerable young learners.”

Public Counsel and Sullivan & Cromwell partnered to provide pro bono legal services to the families involved in this lawsuit.

Read the settlement and lawsuit here.

About Public Counsel

Public Counsel is a nonprofit public interest law firm dedicated to advancing civil rights and racial and economic justice, as well as to amplifying the power of our clients through comprehensive legal advocacy. Founded on and strengthened by a pro bono legal service model, our staff and volunteers seek justice through direct legal services, promote healthy and resilient communities through education and outreach, and support community-led efforts to transform unjust systems through litigation and policy advocacy in and beyond Los Angeles.

About Sullivan & Cromwell

Sullivan & Cromwell LLP is a global law firm that advises on significant litigation, corporate investigations and complex regulatory, major domestic and cross-border M&A, finance, corporate and restructuring transactions, tax and estate planning matters.  Founded in 1879, Sullivan & Cromwell has approximately 900 lawyers located in offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, London, Frankfurt, Paris, Brussels, Hong Kong, Beijing, Tokyo, Melbourne and Sydney.  

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