Court Rejects Suit Alleging School Unlawfully Restrained Autistic Child

By William Vogeler, Esq. on March 13, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A federal appeals court said a mother failed to exhaust administrative remedies before she sued a school district for isolating and restraining her autistic child.

Kristine McCauley sued Francis Howell School District, alleging that teachers put physical restraints on her boy at school for two years before she found out about it. She then removed her child from the district and sued under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and other laws.

A trial judge dismissed her case and the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, concluding that she first should have sought a due process hearing under the Act.

"McCauley's voluntary decision to remove J.M. from school, and thus seek only compensatory and punitive damages rather than compensatory education services, does not exempt her from the exhaustion requirement," the court said in J.M. v. Francis Howell School District.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

In 2011, McCauley's child began kindergarten in the Francis Howell School District based in St. Charles, Missouri. He qualified for special services under the IDEA for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, panic disorder and other conditions which created generalized anxiety.

Between 2012 and 2014, according to McCauley, her child was placed in restraints and isolated during school. When she discovered what had happened, she asked that the school not place him in isolation and restrain him only as necessary.

On Sept. 5, 2014, McCauley removed the child from the district and pursued a case in federal court on his behalf. In addition to suing for IDEA violations, she sought common law remedies for negligence, false imprisonment and battery.

The courts said that McCauley should have followed administrative procedures under the IDEA before filing suit, and dismissed the case against the school district.

Other Orders

Francis Howell School District has a history of court intervention, most recently after it refused to accept students from another district without court orders. The students were being transferred because of financial problems in the neighboring school district.

A judge ordered all local districts to accept the transfer students, effectively ending Francis Howell's practice. It was the only district in the region with a no-transfer policy.

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