Pendleton School District Superintendent Chris Fritsch testified in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, Washington, Dec. 19 as part of a civil suit against his former district alleging improper use of an isolation booth.
The (Longview) Daily News reports the families of five former Mint Valley Elementary School students are suing the Longview School District and Jerry Stein, a former special education teacher who ran the school’s program for behaviorally challenged children from 2005 to 2016.
Fritsch, who was the assistant superintendent in Longview from 2011 until he took the Pendleton job in May 2017, is not named in the lawsuit.
The five students in the suit have each made constitutional claims against Stein, alleging that he violated their right to freedom from unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment by placing them in a 4-by-4-foot isolation booth between 2009 and 2012.
Plaintiffs have also made five different negligence claims against the district, which they argue should be held liable for Stein’s alleged actions.
The district has denied all of the allegations. Throughout the trial, the defense team has argued that staff used the booth only once to control one of the children for emergency reasons.
The eight-member jury will resume deliberations on the 12 claims Wednesday morning.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys have suggested $17.6 million in damages for the five families to cover the value of lost wages, salaries, and employment opportunities — plus the value of medical care and non-medical services in the future. Parents are also seeking compensation for the loss of love and companionship in the parent-child relationship.
A forensic psychologist hired by the plaintiffs has diagnosed all five of the children with trauma-induced stress disorders related to their alleged experiences inside the booth. But a psychologist hired by the defense team says the plaintiffs’ expert failed to account for other sources of stress in the children’s lives.
Throughout the trial, the defense team has denied allegations that the district engaged in a cover-up because it feared it was exposed to legal liability. But plaintiffs argued that the district realized it could be legally exposed immediately after images of the booth surfaced online in 2012. Fritsch testified that he contacted a legal firm less than 24 hours after the images went viral.
And a subsequent email from Fritsch to former Superintendent Suzanne Cusick dated Nov. 29, 2012 illustrated how quickly the district decided to destroy the windowless structure.
“I am meeting with (a maintenance employee) at 4:30 today at Mint Valley to go over the demolition project in the CLC room,” Fritsch wrote, according to court records.
Ultimately the booth was destroyed just five days after photos surfaced online.
“Calming booths were removed from Mint Valley and Mount Solo this morning without incident. They are now part of the landfill,” Fritsch emailed Cusick again on Dec. 2, 2012, according to court records.
During cross-examination, Fritsch told defense attorney John Safarli that a law firm hired by the district had assured him the isolation booth was operated correctly.
“I was led to believe that (the booth) … met the legal requirements,” he said. “And the people that were working that program were following all the rules and were keeping adequate records.”
But on Dec. 19, 2012 — the same day the firm finished its report — Fritsch also emailed a new list of guidelines to the former principal and former Special Education Director Jill Diehl. One of the rules specified that general education students should not be sent to Stein’s classroom for discipline under any circumstance.
Another guideline stipulated that any new isolation area “needs to have a window in the door, similar to the door in my office, with adequate ventilation and lighting,” according to court records.
Fritsch told the East Oregonian on Tuesday that details of the 2012 incident were difficult to remember, but he doesn’t believe any employees acted inappropriately.
“The whole situation is unfortunate,” he said. “My heart goes out to the parents of special needs students and to special needs teachers. Those are tough jobs.”
In Pendleton, both Washington and Sherwood elementary schools were built with seclusion rooms that Fritsch said were constructed in accordance with Oregon Department of Education rules. Fritsch said those rules are more specific than Washington’s, including a minimum of 64 square feet and seven feet between walls.
— East Oregonian editor Daniel Wattenburger contributed to this report.