Lawsuit contends Mat-Su school district illegally isolates and restrains disabled students

PALMER — A new class-action lawsuit against the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District and three employees contends the district illegally restrains and isolates disabled students in violation of both state and federal laws and its own guidelines.

The civil lawsuit was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Anchorage by the parents of a student at Shaw Elementary school near Wasilla on behalf of themselves, their child, and other disabled students.

The filing marks the third legal action brought since mid-November against the district by the Anchorage-based Northern Justice Project.

The parents contend their child was illegally placed in an isolation room during the 2022-2023 school year and was illegally restrained by school principal David Russell, tutor advisor Angela Snow, and Laura Kelly, a school paraprofessional, according to the complaint.

The suit contends the practice of restraining and isolating disabled students is ongoing.

“The District treats its vulnerable students like incarcerated criminals by using these demeaning and ineffectual practices to silence, detain, isolate, control, and punish students who have behavioral challenges as a manifestation of their disabilities,” the suit states.

The student was illegally placed in the Shaw isolation room — which is known as the “zen den”— at least five times over the school year and physically restrained by staff members at least twice, the suit states. The student was placed in the isolation room for what school officials later told the parents were “disrespectful” or “agressive” behaviors, including “punching an aid in the stomach,” it states.


Each time, the district “used solitary confinement as a punitive measure” though there was no imminent danger of injury “and/or less restrictive interventions could have been effectively used to mitigate any imminent danger,” according to the complaint.

According to district policy, students are only to be isolated or restrained in emergency cases or when there is “imminent danger,” a rule also reflected in state law. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires schools to provide equal opportunities to students regardless of disability, a rule violated by the use of isolation and restraint, the suit states.

Early this year Anchorage school district officials agreed in settlement with the Justice Department to end the use of isolation rooms and reform district restraint practices. A Justice Department investigation found the Anchorage district reported nearly 4,000 seclusion and restraint incidents with 227 students between 2018 and 2021. Over 80% of those were students with disabilities.

The new suit, which seeks a jury trial, asks the court to order the Mat-Su to make immediate changes similar to those agreed to in the Anchorage settlement.

A Mat-Su district spokesperson declined to comment Monday because district officials had not yet received a copy of the lawsuit.

A suit filed Nov. 17 on behalf of six Mat-Su students by the Northern Justice Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska students contends the district violated students’ constitutional rights by removing 56 books from library shelves early this year. And a suit filed Nov. 30 by a pair of Mat-Su students represented by the Northern Justice Project contends the students’ civil rights were violated by a school board investigation into a student-led protest and a block against all political statements on campus.

Amy Bushatz

Amy Bushatz is a veteran journalist based in the Mat-Su covering Valley news for the ADN.