KCS attorneys Daniel Heffernan, Alicia Warren, and Carl Misitano resolved a complex civil rights suit against the Holyoke Public Schools. The case arose out of the abuse and mistreatment of fifteen students with special needs in a program within the Holyoke Public Schools.The students, who were in grades four through eight, all had pre-existing emotional disabilities including anxiety and trauma-related disorders. The defendants included the municipal entities and various school employees. The students were subjected to unnecessary, abusive, harmful and otherwise improper restraints and seclusions. Students were struck, thrown to the floor, pinned against walls, and subjected to humiliating and dangerous “prone” restraints, where they were pinned face-down on the floor. There were numerous instances of staff egging students on or provoking physical interactions to create pretexts for the restraints. In contravention of restraint fundamentals, staff repeatedly failed to take adequate steps to deescalate situations and avoid the necessity of restraints. Restraints and seclusions were routinely used as punishments for being disruptive, disobedient or disrespectful. These included instances where students refused to change into a uniform or for throwing things. All of the students suffered psychological harm as a result of the restraints administered to them, living in fear of additional restraints, witnessing the restraint of other students, and being educated in the culture of violence at the school because of multiple instances of improper restraint.
The case was founded upon the disclosures by a courageous and dedicated whistleblower and investigations by the Disability Law Center and the Massachusetts Department of Early and Secondary Education. The multi-party suit included counts for tort and violations of federal and Massachusetts civil rights statutes. Because of the administrative “exhaustion” requirement in effect at the time for claims arising out of the provision of special education services, the claims were initially brought before the Massachusetts Bureau of Special Education Appeals before proceeding to Superior Court. The parties participated in a multi-day mediation, followed by several additional months of negotiating before settling the case for $950,000 to be divided among the plaintiffs.