Private School Reaches Settlement With Justice Department Over Restraining Student With Autism

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Apr 30, 2020

Anova Center for Education operates two K-12 schools in Sonoma County for students with autism spectrum disorders, neurodevelopmental impairments, emotional disturbances, and learning disabilities.  Anova receives the majority of its students from public school districts through Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) placements.  The IDEA permits public schools to place IDEA-eligible children with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in private schools at the public’s expense, when necessary to provide special education and related services to the child.

After the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) received a complaint that Anova prone restrained a student (i.e., simultaneously immobilized the student’s hands and feet against the floor or another surface) with Autism Spectrum Disorder 77 times over the course of several months, it opened an investigation and a compliance review.  The DOJ stated that its investigation and compliance review revealed that Anova failed “to reasonably modify its policies, practices and procedures, [which] led to unnecessary and inappropriate reliance on classroom exclusion and restraint to manage [the] behavior” of students with Autism Spectrum Disorder who had difficulties adhering to Anova’s behavioral standards due to their disability.  The DOJ asserted that Anova declined to utilize resources provided by parents and local schools to “mitigate escalating behavior, facilitate class participation, and reduce Anova’s reliance on restraint.”

The settlement agreement expresses the DOJ’s conclusion that Anova’s conduct discriminated against students in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (Title III), but states that Anova “firmly denies that it has ever discriminated against any of its students or has ever declined to apply available resources.”  As part of the settlement agreement, Anova is required to reasonably modify its behavioral standards according to any individualized supports or interventions to mitigate behavior that may be in a student’s IEP and to involve a student’s IEP team if the student engages in negative behavior that affects his/her ability to participate in the school’s programming successfully.  Anova is also required to revise the Employee Manual on the topic of physical management of challenging behavior to remedy the unnecessary use and reliance on restraint as well as the following:

  • Create a reasonable modification policy and procedure that includes a procedure for parents or guardians to make requests for behavioral supports and interventions and for Anova to consider and respond to those requests;
  • Create a policy for Anova to identify and implement needed behavioral supports and interventions for children with disabilities affecting behavior;
  • Require a meeting between Anova employees, parents or guardians and IEP team members after each use of restraint to assess the effectiveness of the supports and interventions taken before restraint was utilized and to consider changes to the supports and interventions in the future; and 
  • Provide live training for employees on the nondiscrimination requirements of Title III and designate and maintain an ADA Compliance Officer.


Title III prohibits places of public accommodation, such as schools, colleges, universities, and childcare facilities, from discriminating against or excluding individuals based on disability in the full and equal enjoyment of their goods and services.  Under Title III, a public accommodation must make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures where such modifications are necessary to afford such goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations to individuals with disabilities, unless the public accommodation can demonstrate that making the reasonable modification is a fundamental alteration to the nature of such goods and services.

While this settlement is only binding on Anova, it provides a valuable reminder of the obligations imposed by Title III on places of public accommodation, such as schools, colleges, universities, and childcare facilities, to provide reasonable modifications to permit individuals with disabilities to participate in their services, to reevaluate those modifications for effectiveness, and make adjustments when reasonable and appropriate.