BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA – The United States Department of Justice and Department of Education have filed a statement of interest in a lawsuit challenging the solitary confinement policies and practices and failure to educate youth with disabilities in Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall.
According to the federal class action lawsuit, filed in August 2013 by Disability Rights Advocates, Public Counsel and Paul Hastings LLP, Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall locks young people with disabilities in solitary confinement – segregating the youth in a 12 by 12 cell, with a cement block bed, and a steel door – for up to 23 hours a day and deprives them of education.
The U.S. Departments of Justice and Education have now both taken the rare step to become formally involved in the lawsuit. According to the Department of Justice and Department of Education filing, Contra Costa County Office of Education and Contra Costa County “have a legal obligation to avoid placing students with disabilities in restrictive security programs on the basis of their disabilities.” They “cannot abandon their legal responsibilities when the County’s Department of Probation places the youth in restrictive security programs. Nor can they each avoid responsibility by pointing the finger of liability at the other…. They can, and are required by State law to work together to accomplish these requirements. When they fail, the agencies, not the children they are required to serve, must take responsibility.”
Youth with disabilities generally are disproportionately represented in juvenile correctional facilities and by Contra Costa County’s own estimate, roughly 32% of the students at the Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall have disabilities that require some form of special education. Despite their disabilities, youth at Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall are locked for days and weeks at a time in cells that have barely enough room for a bed and a narrow window the width of a hand and length of an arm. Indeed young people are routinely held in conditions like those in a maximum security prison. The results of such conditions are devastating. For instance, named Plaintiff W.B. was placed in solitary confinement for more than 90 days, during which time he deteriorated mentally to the point where he was smearing feces on the wall and, ultimately, was held in a psychiatric hospital for three weeks.
“The United States Department of Justice and Department of Education have singled out Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall for a reason,” said Mary-Lee Smith, Managing Attorney at Disability Rights Advocates. “Contra Costa County and Contra Costa County Office of Education’s refusal to accept their legal obligations cannot continue, too many young people with disabilities are suffering and that must end.”
“United States Department of Justice and Department of Education involvement in this case should be a wake-up call to Contra Costa County and the County Office of Education,” said Laura Faer, Statewide Education Rights Director. “Every day more young people are harmed by their failure to take responsibility and follow federal and state law. These flagrant violations of children’s rights to education and rehabilitative services must stop.”
The federal class action lawsuit – G.F. et al. v. Contra Costa County et al. – is currently before Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James. Plaintiffs are seeking to certify the lawsuit as a class action to represent all youth with disabilities in Juvenile Hall subject to the discriminatory policies and practices of the Contra Costa County and Contra Costa County Office of Education. Defendants have both filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit. Both the class certification motion and the motions to dismiss will be heard on March 20, 2014.
Since the lawsuit was filed in August, Disability Rights Advocates, Public Counsel and Paul Hastings have also represented three named plaintiffs in administrative due process hearings that found the Contra Costa County Probation Department responsible and liable when it placed children in solitary confinement and denied access to the County Office of Education to provide education.
Disability Rights Advocates is a non-profit legal center advocating for the civil rights of all people with disabilities through class action and other high-impact litigation across the nation.
Public Counsel is the nation’s largest pro bono law firm with a 40-year history of fighting for the rights of students, children, families, and others in need of justice.
Paul Hastings LLP is a leading global law firm with offices in Asia, Europe, and the United States. The firm is committed to giving back to those in need and currently is ranked 3rd in the American Lawyer’s Pro Bono Report.
For immediate release: February 18, 2014
Mary-Lee K. Smith, Disability Rights Advocates, (510) 665-8644