Trial over Longview ‘isolation booths’ to begin

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PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Five years ago a photo from Mint Valley Elementary School in Longview sparked controversy by revealing a practice of putting special needs kids in small cells to control outbursts.

Students age 5 to 10 with behavioral issues were put into an “isolation booth” or “seclusion room” to help them calm down.

An "isolation booth" used at Mint Valley Elementary School in Longview, Washington.  (KOIN file)

At the time, mom Ana Bate described what her son saw: “He says ‘you’re not going to believe this. They have a box at my school.’ He says ‘they’re putting kids in it.’ He says for ‘normal things we all do.'”

The images hit the local headlines, leading to revelations that seclusion rooms were also being used in Portland’s Pioneer School and others in the region.

One mother of a girl with autism said at the time the seclusion booth in Longview was a blessing.

“They’re so out of control, they can’t control themselves right away so they go into the isolation booth just to get away from the outside world,” Niki Favela said.

A lawsuit heading to trial in federal court on December 4 calls the practice “harmful and unconscionable” and says it was “tantamount to placing elementary school age children into solitary confinement,” and caused them to be traumatized, have nightmares, fear of being left alone and sometimes made their “disability related behaviors worse.”

The amount the families are suing for is not specified.

The lawsuit also claims the special education teacher who would put kids in the booth had a troubling past. A 1991 police report shows a Longview detective investigated the teacher, who KOIN 6 News is not naming, for “possible sex abuse of a student.”

The detective also looked into a 1982 investigation where another staff member said she saw the teacher reading to a girl and, “his left hand was underneath the cotton knit t-shirt she was wearing…” and he was sexually assaulting her.

Police and the Cowlitz County prosecutors wrote there was “not enough evidence” to charge the teacher for any crimes.

Recently the Longview School District told KOIN 6 News in a statement the cases “were investigated by both the Longview Police Department and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, and both agencies cleared (the teacher) of any wrongdoing.”

The school district says its lawyers are trying to get the judge to bar those police reports from the trial over the isolation booth. The judge has tentatively agreed, writing:

“The prejudice of such evidence is obvious and appears not only unfair to (the teacher) but also to the other defendants in the case… The court notes that the subject evidence is either remote in time, occurred after the events complained of in this case, and/or has been recanted.”

The outrage that followed the original reports 5 years ago led to the banning of isolation booths from schools in Washington and Oregon. However, isolation rooms are still allowed in Oregon.

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