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Landmark Settlement Reached in Lawsuit Challenging Trauma-Inducing Physical Restraints and Seclusion of Students in California School

CONCORD, CA –September 1, 2022– Public Counsel and Sullivan & Cromwell LLP today announced that they reached a settlement agreement with the California Department of Education (CDE) to address the use of illegal and abusive restraint and seclusion practices at Floyd I. Marchus School (“Marchus”), a Contra Costa County public school serving students with behavioral and emotional needs.

The agreement, under which the state will maintain a higher degree of oversight over Marchus, resolves a class-action lawsuit to stop the use of trauma-inducing and gratuitously punitive interventions in non-emergency situations. For years before this lawsuit, Marchus had used restraints, seclusion, and inappropriate segregation and isolation, in violation of these students’ rights.

“As a result of the families that came forward in this lawsuit, students at Marchus will return to safer classrooms this year,” said Tara Ford, Senior Counsel at Public Counsel. “The use of dangerous restraint and seclusion practices carries a heavy emotional toll on the students and families that live through it.  Classrooms must be safe so that students can learn. We applaud the California Department of Education for agreeing to take meaningful steps to stop these harmful practices at Marchus. We hope this case serves as an example for other schools and states so that all children can be safe in their classrooms.”

“My daughter was eight when she told me about the tactics used to isolate and restrain her as a student at school,” said Elyse K., a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “I felt betrayed by the staff, and my daughter’s sense of adults as a trusted source of support was fractured. Children with disabilities have a right to the same opportunities as every student, to grow and thrive in an environment where educators lead with safety and in the best interests of our children. This settlement will help prevent further trauma for children at Marchus, and it will demonstrate to my child that she was heard and believed, and that the friends she left behind will be protected.”

Michael Steinberg, a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell, said, “Marchus was among the worst offenders in failing to treat special education students with the respect and dignity they deserve. We were pleased to partner with Public Counsel to pursue this case so that we could create a safe learning environment for students at Marchus by stopping these unfair and harmful disciplinary practices. To achieve this, oversight from the state is critical. In reaching this settlement, we hope to raise greater awareness of these dangerous practices and to prevent them from being used, especially against the most vulnerable young learners.”

Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the CDE will:

  • Conduct two years of follow-up review of Marchus to ensure best practices are being followed and the safety of students is not compromised through the use of abusive, restrictive, and cruel restraints previously used on students;
  • Audit Marchus’ written documentation of its policies and reports regarding prior incidents during the Follow-Up Review Period; and 
  • Provide technical assistance and training for Marchus staff so that they may learn Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.

Filed in 2019 on behalf of four elementary-age students, the lawsuit sought to hold the state of California 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 needs – free from the threat of assault, battery, and trauma.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, over 100,000 students are restrained or secluded each year. Several state legislatures, including Colorado and Florida, have recently taken up bills prohibiting the use of some or all restraint and seclusion techniques and strengthening reporting requirements for greater oversight and transparency.

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

Read the settlement HERE.

Read the lawsuit HERE.

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Public Counsel Founded in 1970, Public Counsel is the nation’s largest provider of pro bono legal services, utilizing an innovative legal model to promote justice, hope, and opportunity in lower-income and communities of color in Los Angeles and across the nation. Through groundbreaking civil rights litigation, community building, advocacy, and policy change, as well as wide-ranging direct legal services that annually help thousands of people experiencing poverty, Public Counsel has fought to secure equal justice and opportunity for all for more than 50 years.   

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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