School Caged Special-Needs Girl, Mom Says

     FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – A first-grade teacher locked a special-education student in a makeshift cage where she sat in a soiled diaper with dried feces on her body, her mother says in Federal Court.
     Ledelldra Brooks filed suit against Fresno Unified School District, teacher Theresa MonPere, and administrators Christie Yang and Ron Bohigian on behalf of her daughter, A.J., who was 7 years old at the time of the alleged mistreatment.
     A.J. has been diagnosed with mental retardation, seizure disorder and substantial handicaps. She is also non-verbal so her communications skills are very limited, her mother says.
     She was assigned by Fresno Unified to MonPere’s classroom at Viking Elementary School for the 2013-2014 school year, according to the complaint.
     Throughout the year, A.J. was routinely locked inside a cage in MonPere’s classroom and left for excessive periods of time without any educational justification, her mother says.
     “The cage was approximately 4 ½ feet wide and approximately 5 feet tall, with two opposing bookcases used as the walls. The backside of the cage was the classroom wall. The front side of the cage consisted of two gates, one on top of the other. The bottom gate was secured by locks and the top gate was secured by a black tie. Both gates were secured to the bookcases by screws,” the complaint states.
     Brooks says that she was unaware that her daughter was being locked in the cage, but did notice that A.J. went from being happy at the beginning of the school year to stressed and anxious as the year progressed.
     “A.J. became fearful to have her bedroom door shut and would stand at the door crying. Additionally, A.J. became increasingly anxious, angry and stressed out upon returning home from school,” the complaint states.
     The mother did not discover the reason for A.J.’s behavioral changes until she made an unannounced visit to her daughter’s classroom late in the school year and discovered A.J. locked inside of a cage, the complaint says.
     “According to MonPere, A.J. had been placed in the structure because A.J. had scratched an aide and had only been restrained ‘for a few minutes.’ However, A.J. was wearing a soiled diaper and had dried feces on her body which had caused a skin rash, indicating that she had been confined for a longer period,” according to the complaint.
     Brooks immediately took her daughter out of the class, notified school administrators about the situation and called the police, she says. The aide later told police that she did not have any visible injuries from being scratched, the complaint states.
     The school district subsequently removed the cage from the classroom and launched an investigation that has not been made public, the complaint says.
     The use of seclusion is expressly prohibited by Viking school policy. A memo sent to Viking staff specifically stated that seclusion is a “traumatic experience” and that “children experience immediate and lingering psychological harm from seclusion events,” the complaint states. (17)
     California Education Code provides for a series of requirements for the use of emergency intervention, which includes the duty not to use locked seclusion or emergency intervention for longer than necessary. Educators also have a duty to notify the parent within one day of the intervention.
     Teachers also must schedule an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, meeting to review the behavioral emergency report with the parents to determine the necessity for a functional behavioral assessment and an interim plan.
     Brooks says that A.J.’s behavior never rose to the level of an emergency or a probable threat of harm to either herself or others that would justify the use of seclusion. Furthermore, nothing in A.J.’s IEP sanctioned the use of locked seclusion or confinement, according to the complaint.
     The district also failed to report or document that A.J. had been put in confinement, and never informed Brooks that her daughter had been placed in a cage, the complaint says.
     Defendants Yang and Bohigian – administrators at the school – knew that students in MonPere’s class were being locked in a cage for indeterminate periods of time but did nothing to stop it, the complaint states.
     The Fresno Bee reported this past November that Yang told police the cage had been installed three years ago as “a safety precaution.”
     A.J. seeks punitive damages on constitutional and civil rights claims, Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act violations, intentional infliction of emotional distress and false imprisonment.
     She is represented by Todd Boley, who could not be immediately reached for comment.
     A school district representative said she was not yet aware of the lawsuit and declined further comment.

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