Under approved settlement plan, Pomona Unified School District to revamp its policies relating to the safety of special education students.
LOS ANGELES – The Disability Rights Legal Center (DRLC), with Pillsbury serving as pro bono co-counsel, has settled two lawsuits relating to the rights of students with disabilities under the care of Pomona Unified School District.
On September 28, 2018, the U.S. District Court judge handing the case in the Central District of California granted Plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary approval of the settlement in the case.
The lawsuits contend that District administrators, teachers, classroom aides, and health officers violated the students’ civil and constitutional rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Unruh Civil Rights Act, and related statutes through a systemic failure to keep students with disabilities safe while at school, resulting in a pattern of undocumented and unreported physical injuries and abuse, since at least 2013.
The case was filed on behalf of two named plaintiffs, as well as a class of similarly situated students with disabilities, who were exposed to the District’s alleged harmful practices that resulted in abuse and injury. The named plaintiffs, J.V., 9 years old, and B.K., 12 years old, both have autism and suffered injury at the hands of District staff. J.V. was wrongly restrained by his arms and legs by two classroom aides. B.K. was pushed and slapped across the face by a classroom aide. Because of their disabilities, neither J.V. nor B.K. could report their abuse or injuries and their parents were unable to obtain adequate information because the District failed to document or fully report what had occurred. Of further concern, the District allegedly failed to take steps to prevent further abuse or injury, jeopardizing the safety of all students with disabilities in the District. Other students with disabilities suffered scratches, lacerations, bruises and even lost teeth, which school officials failed to report adequately or to explain to parents and to prevent from recurring. Inquiries by the families were met with delayed responses from the school district or, in some cases, no response at all.
In November 2016, the U.S. District Court granted class certification, finding that the District’s policies and practices regarding documenting and reporting student injuries, as well as training and supervising staff, impact all students with developmental disabilities.
As a result of the settlement, the District will undergo extensive remedial action, including hiring experts in special education to review and revise the District’s policies, practices, and procedures. For the next several years, these experts will design and oversee training, and evaluate the effectiveness of the District’s programming and practices, to ensure that all students with disabilities have access to a safe learning environment.
The settlement also includes payment to the two named plaintiffs for their individual personal injuries and related claims and cash payments to a Damages Settlement Class of all students who were designated by their Individualized Education Program team as eligible for special education under one or more of the categories of Intellectual Disability, Autism (or Autism-Like Behaviors), or Multiple Disabilities, who currently attend, or did attend, a school operated by Pomona Unified School District at any time between August 1, 2013, and the date of the Preliminary Approval Order. The amount that will be available to the Class is $900,000.
Those students eligible to receive payment will be identified by the District and will receive a direct notice by mail about how to make a claim. There will also be a settlement website established by an outside administrator and personnel will be available to assist in the process.
The settlement resolves both the Federal class action lawsuit filed in 2015 and a related class action case filed in the Los Angeles Superior Court in 2016. Now that the Board has approved the settlement agreement, a Motion for Preliminary Approval of the Settlement will be filed in Federal Court. U.S. District Court Judge John Kronstadt is expected to rule on preliminarily approving of the settlement in October.
The cases were the first of their kind to be brought on behalf of classes of students to address policies, practices, and procedures applicable to students with disabilities.
DRLC’s Inland Empire Regional Director, Elizabeth Eubanks, says, “This settlement is unprecedented in that students with disabilities are often disregarded as a class of individuals with protected rights. Hopefully, this agreement will serve as a wakeup call to school districts nationwide that students with disabilities have the right to an equal education and there must be processes in place to protect these rights, including the very basic right to a safe learning environment.”
“The heroes of this case are the witnesses who came forward, and the brave parents who stuck with this case for more than two years. They stood up and said that this can’t continue,” said Christine Scheuneman, a retired litigation partner in Pillsbury’s Los Angeles office. “Given the egregious nature of the allegations, this is precisely the kind of impact case that our pro bono program is proud to take here at Pillsbury, and we believe this settlement will affect real change at Pomona and school districts throughout the country.”
Joining Scheuneman on the Pillsbury team were partner Michael McDonough and associates Benjamin Strauss, Elaine Lee, Stephanie Amaru and Rebecca Lee.
About Disability Rights Legal Center
Founded in 1975, Disability Rights Legal Center (DRLC) is the nation’s oldest non-profit public interest cross-disability law center. Its mission is to champion the rights of people with disabilities through education, advocacy, and litigation. www.drlcenter.org.