For a kindergartner with autism in Centralia, a padded isolation room became a regular sight. Teachers locked him there, sometimes for nearly an hour, when they felt he disrupted class.
But school staff allegedly failed for months to tell his mother that they had been stowing him away while he was at school, according to a new complaint filed in Lewis County Superior Court.
Ashlee Fitch said she found out by accident. One day in January 2022, a teacher at Oakview Elementary School made an off-handed remark about how they “didn’t have to lock the isolation room today” with her son inside.
The nearly 30-page complaint accuses the Centralia School District of negligence, violation of state education laws and discrimination. The complaint makes further allegations, including false imprisonment and assault.
In Washington, teachers and school employees can restrain and isolate students. However, state laws limit those tactics to extreme circumstances. The laws also require consistent reporting to parents.
Disability rights advocates have argued that allowing these practices disproportionately impacts students with special needs. They’ve argued with lawmakers to ban them, contending they can inflict lifelong trauma.
Fitch’s son, referred to only as G.F. in the complaint, was a special education student at Oakview Elementary School. A Bellevue doctor in April diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder, the complaint said.
Attorney Whitney Hill represents Fitch and told OPB she draws a straight line between the diagnosis and G.F.’s treatment at school.
“The law is very clear. Restraint and isolation is legal in schools. However, you have to take steps once restraint or isolation happens,” Hill said. “In this case, it just seemed like the restraint and isolation was so out of control.”
Centralia School District superintendent Lisa Grant declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
Many of the details in the complaint stem from public records obtained by Hill, specifically communication between employees within the district.
The complaint also uses reports the district sent to Fitch, however, she didn’t find the reports until later because the district reportedly sent them to an incorrect address.
According to the complaint, school officials had concerns about Fitch’s son, then 5 years old, before he ever set foot on school grounds. In early September 2021, Oakview’s principal “informed” district officials she “did not want G.F.” enrolled, the complaint said.
In an interview, Hill said Fitch’s son was diagnosed with autism this year. He was enrolled in special education classes and required individualized attention. Both a previous teacher and his mother noted he struggled with change and could have a temper.
School staff first documented isolating Fitch’s son in November 2021, the complaint said, but they relied on the tactic more frequently as time passed. G. F. found himself alone in the padded, white room on more than 30 occasions into January 2022. School staff often locked him there for between 20 and 40 minutes.
According to the complaint, adults would hold signs up to a small window on the door that urged Fitch’s son to “sit” or “have a calm body.”
The actions that landed the kindergartner in trouble vary, according to the complaint. At least once he refused to come inside after recess. Other times said he was reportedly “kicking feet in the air,” “sticking his tongue out, saying ‘ha ha,’” or “ripping apart a mask.”
Those actions shouldn’t prescribe isolation or restraint, Hill argued in her complaint. In Washington, school staff can only restrain children when a student’s behavior “poses an imminent likelihood of serious harm.”
Hill also noted on multiple occasions that staff didn’t explicitly state a reason for isolating or restraining Fitch’s son. Schools must disclose multiple things to parents, including the date and time of the incident, what led up to it and which staffers were involved.
Fitch didn’t receive any information for months, the complaint alleges. The district reportedly mailed paperwork to an outdated address — an address that Fitch had corrected to the district on three separate occasions.
The complaint also noted that teachers had multiple in-person conversations with Fitch and never discussed restraining or isolating her son. On Dec. 10, for example, she met with the district to discuss his individualized education plan and yet “had absolutely no idea G.F. was being restrained or isolated at school.”
“No one from the district raised the issue of G.F.’s frequent incidents or restraints and isolations,” Hill wrote. “The district continued to send all the restraint and isolation reports ... to the old physical address knowing Ms. Fitch would not receive the paperwork.”
When a staffer made an off-handed remark on Jan. 24 about Fitch’s son and the isolation room, she was “shocked and confused.”
“When she inquired for more information, she was finally informed that the district had been locking G.F. in the isolation room almost daily for the last couple months,” the complaint said.
Fitch then wrote to school officials that she was “pissed.”
“This is ABSOLUTELY RIDICULOUS to not give a 5-year-old recess and lock him up like a crazy person in a psych ward,” Fitch wrote in an email.
School staff continued to put Fitch’s son in the isolation room the next month. The practices continued when they moved to another school in the district.
In August 2022, the district transferred Fitch’s son to a school specialized for children with behavioral issues. The complaint reported that he has not had an issue since.
Dr. Lion Enns, a behavioral health specialist based in Bellevue, wrote in a report that G.F. underwent “immeasurable harm” from his treatment while attending Centralia School District. He diagnosed Fitch with post-traumatic stress disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism.
“Autistic children are less resilient than their neurotypical peers and also more prone to intense visual memories,” Enns wrote. Those factors can make Fitch’s son “less likely to recover from trauma.”
Andrea Kadlec, a staff attorney with Disability Rights Washington, said such cases show how dangerous restraining children can be.
“We’re taking students who are traumatized and profoundly re-traumatizing them,” Kadlec said. “They further disable students because it causes PTSD, anxiety and depression.”
Disability Rights Washington and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington recently co-authored a paper that reported isolations and restraints are overwhelmingly used on students with disabilities and students who are in 5th grade or younger.
The report also found that students in foster care, students of color and low-income students are all more likely to be restrained or isolated at school.
Washington state has taken measures to curb some restraint and isolation tactics, but schools don’t always change tactics right away.
In 2021, lawmakers made it illegal to restrain a child against the ground — either “supine” on their back or “prone” on their stomach. They also banned restraining students against a wall, and any hold that interferes with breathing.
However, security guards at Vancouver Public Schools repeatedly used such restraints on students for at least a year afterward, an OPB investigation found. Sometimes security didn’t explicitly state the type of hold, writing only that they “took” a student “to the ground.”
The Fitch complaint noted that G.F. was restrained multiple times, too. Sometimes staff only described it as a “floor hold.”