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Massachusetts family sues school district, employees after a third grader was restrained multiple times

By Chandelis Duster and Nia Mclean, CNN

(CNN) — A Massachusetts mother is suing her son’s former school district and several of its employees for allegedly “brutally and impermissibly” restraining the boy, who was 8 years old at the time, on numerous occasions – including with a “gym mat” – according to a copy of the lawsuit obtained by CNN.

The boy, who is Black and referred to by the initials “M.W.” in the lawsuit, attended Glover Elementary School in Marblehead, Massachusetts, as a third-grader from September 2023 to March 2024 as a part of the commonwealth’s voluntary school integration program called the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO).

CNN has agreed not to name the boy or his mother over the family’s concerns about the emotional health and wellbeing of her son.

Nearly 83% of students at Glover Elementary School were White and less than 2% percent were Black during the 2023-2024 school year, according to the commonwealth’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

While enrolled in the school, employees allegedly restrained the child multiple times and, on those occasions, according to the lawsuit, they “forcibly grasped his wrists,” “dragged (him) down school hallways,” and, on at least one occasion, “encircled (M.W.) … with a large gym mat so that he was forcibly trapped” and pushed to “transport” him, leaving him “isolated … in empty rooms.”

“These employees’ actions terrified M.W. and caused him to suffer from severe asthma attacks and vomiting,” the lawsuit states.

According to the lawsuit, M.W. was restrained “in three separate incidents” on December 6, 2023 – including after an incident that “occurred because M.W. had a baseball bat and was allegedly swinging it at some of the Defendant staff — a characterization that is not corroborated by video evidence.”

Later that day, M.W. “needed emergency transport to the hospital via ambulance because his asthma attack could not be controlled,” according to the lawsuit.

A school employee allegedly witnessed this incident and filed an anonymous complaint with the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF), a child welfare agency, the lawsuit states.

Erika Richmond Walton, the family’s attorney, told CNN the child’s mother withdrew him from the school in March of this year.

“I want there to be accountability from the district regarding what happened to my clients and the trauma that they are still experiencing,” Richmond Walton said.

“We want there to be a change in the way that this district and other districts in Massachusetts treat Black and Latinx children. We also want there to be some reform regarding Massachusetts restraint laws,” she said.

The commonwealth’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has guidelines that state the use of restraint “shall be limited to the use of such reasonable force as is necessary to protect a student or another member of the school community from assault or imminent, serious, physical harm.”

The lawsuit notes that the regulations prohibit physical restraint from being used when a student cannot be safely restrained due to medical reasons, including asthma.

Four Glover Elementary school employees were placed on paid administrative leave in December while the district reviewed its policies on student restraint, according to CNN affiliate WCVB, citing Marblehead Public School’s interim superintendent Theresa McGuinness.

At the time, McGuinness said the employees’ leave “is not a punitive action, but it is necessary during this process,” according to WCVB.

CNN has reached out to the school district to confirm if the employees placed on administrative leave were those involved in the incidents mentioned in the lawsuit. CNN has not been able to confirm the current status of the four employees.

The lawsuit seeks damages from the Town of Marblehead, the school district and individual employees in an amount to be determined at trial and to have the child’s student record cleared.

‘Our Way Forward’

In response to a question from CNN about incidents spanning September to December, McGuinness shared a statement this month, saying that when district leadership learned about the allegations, they “commissioned an outside investigation into the matter, and took appropriate action.”

“The Marblehead Public Schools was transparent during the difficult process and will continue to be,” McGuinness said in the statement.

“Furthermore, immediately upon learning of the matter in question, the district filed a 51A child abuse/neglect report with … (DCF), in keeping with its role as a mandated reporter,” the statement said.

In response to a question from CNN, DCF confirmed it received a report and investigated. Richmond Walton shared a copy of DCF findings sent to the mother with CNN. It concludes that five allegations of neglect of her son were “supported.”

Three out of the five caregivers who are identified in the DCF report are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The school district also hired a third-party consulting firm to investigate a November incident where staff were allegedly “using a large, padded mat to trap M.W. and control his movements,” according to the lawsuit.

During the incident, the student began to “experience symptoms of active asthma” and vomited and, according to the lawsuit, “only then did a Glover Elementary School employee give M.W. his inhaler.”

The independent investigators issued a redacted report in March that aligns with the lawsuit’s description of what happened during the Nov. 20 incident, including that employees “transported” a student in a padded mat.

Richmond Walton confirmed to CNN that M.W. was the student referenced in the consulting firm’s report.

The report concluded, “the staff involved in this incident … had an extraordinarily difficult task. Some of the techniques that were utilized were not aligned with the proper procedures outlined in Safety-Care training.”

The report also said that, while school staff had “every right to use restraints” to prevent potential harm, the “violation of procedure was their selected method of restraint.”

“The improvisation of encircling (M.W.) with a mat was an undue hardship on (M.W.) and was unnecessary for creating a safe environment. Furthermore, the chosen restraint was not effective,” the report said, adding that “in the heat of the moment, (M.W.) was improperly transported.”

Investigators also concluded that using the mat in this incident … was a violation of the commonwealth’s regulation prohibiting use of “mechanical restraint…and seclusion.”

In March, the district unveiled a new plan outlining how it would address restraints on students in the future, called “Restraint Response Plans … Our Way Forward.”

The plan includes, among other things, requiring all staff to participate in a training on restraint prevention and behavioral support policy, and requiring staff debrief after “any significant escalation” to “prevent and minimize future incidents.”

Richmond Walton said M.W. has since enrolled in another school, but he’s still dealing with trauma because of the incidents.

In a statement shared with CNN through her lawyer, the now 9-year-old’s mother said her son has had a difficult time adjusting to his new school.

“The teachers say he is showing signs of trauma,” she said. “It’s very hard to see that my baby is not the same. I cry every day.”

According to a report from the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, “approximately 52,800 K-12 students were physically restrained, mechanically restrained, and/or placed in seclusion at schools,” during the 2020-2021 school year.

While Black students made up 15% of K-12 public school enrollment during the same year, the report found they accounted for 21% of students physically restrained, 42% of the students restrained using a device or equipment, and 19% of students secluded.

Boys, Black students, students of two or more races and students with disabilities were also more likely to be restrained, the report said.

Richmond Walton told CNN the child’s mother believes her son’s race played a role in the repeated use of restraints.

“She’s almost 100% sure that this would not be happening if he was a White child,” she said. However, Richmond Walton said METCO should not take the blame, and she feels the school district is responsible.

“Districts that participate in the METCO program are obligated to be welcoming and respectful of the children of color that attend these schools,” she said.

According to the commonwealth’s department of education, the METCO program “is a voluntary program intended to expand educational opportunities, increase diversity, and reduce racial isolation for students in urban and suburban communities.”

It allows children from Boston and Springfield to attend schools in other districts with greater resources. METCO currently serves approximately 3,200 students across 38 school districts in metropolitan Boston and outside Springfield.

METCO President and CEO Milly Arbaje-Thomas said in a statement that the program remains committed to “empowering our METCO districts with the tools and resources they need to recognize, respond to, and repair racial harm in their communities.”

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