Filed in U.S. District Court, the suit involves several incidents spanning from 2015-2017 at Pittsburgh Liberty K-5 in Shadyside. The boy, identified as D.C., started to experience issues when he was in kindergarten. According to the suit, he had trouble following directions and staying in his seat. He was then diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and oppositional defiant disorder.
The next year while in first grade, D.C.’s behavior worsened. He had more incidents including throwing a desk, walking out of class, and yelling at teachers. However, the suit alleges that PPS failed to provide recommended intervention techniques and reports severe disciplinary action against D.C., including a substitute teacher allegedly restraining D.C. to the ground while placing a knee on his back, secluding D.C. in a room several times, and handcuffing him before his mother arrived to pick him up.
Last month, the lawyers representing D.C. amended the lawsuit, adding a class-action suit against PPS to include other students with disabilities “who have been or will be unlawfully handcuffed or restrained by school police officers or District personnel in Pittsburgh Public Schools.”
According to the criminal-justice site The Appeal, the lawyer representing D.C., Kristen Weidus, said the school district has acknowledged that the handcuffing occurred. But there is disagreement over whether the disciplinary action was an appropriate use of restraint. Weidus says not enough PPS school resource officers are getting adequate training in how to properly restrain children, including those with disabilities.
Aimee Zundel, the lawyer representing PPS and the school police officer named in the suit, told The Appeal that PPS has disciplinary policies that allow for the use of restraints as “a measure of last resort and shall only be used after other less restrictive measures, including de-escalation techniques.” Zundel added that the district takes these allegations very seriously and “ongoing work goes on within the district to ensure the police officers are ready and have the knowledge they need to work with the [population] they serve which is minors, juveniles.”
Both the substitute teacher who allegedly retrained D.C. with a knee and the school principal named in the suit are no longer employed by PPS, according to Zundel.
The lawsuit also states PPS failed to provide D.C. the support he required and instead suspended him for three days and “recommended that he be involuntarily committed to a mental health facility.”
Fela Turner, D.C.’s grandfather, told The Appeal that he sat in on D.C.’s class for two days in November 2016 and saw a chaotic classroom environment. Turner said there were 27 first-graders for one teacher and that different substitute teachers filled in for the regular teacher who was on medical leave. He also said students were disciplined by being forced to face the wall and that every disciplined student was Black, like D.C.
According to Pennsylvania’s Department of Education, five PPS schools were among the top 25 in arrests for schools in the entire state. And PublicSource reported how from 2013-2017 that 80% of arrests and citations in PPS were of Black students, even though only about 50% of the school district student population is Black.
Black teens in Allegheny County are also 20 times more likely to be prosecuted as adults compared to white teens, and Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala has blamed that disparity on the significant percentages of Black youth attending PPS schools.
The Appeal reports that D.C. eventually got the proper special education evaluation, but only after he was restrained in handcuffs. His family says D.C., now 10, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder following the incidents. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that D.C. is enrolled at Watson Institute’s Friendship Academy. Turner told The Appeal that D.C. is on a football team and competing in track competitions, but that the whole situation took a toll on the family.
“It’s sent my daughter and [me] through a lot,” Turner said.