Last month, Chesapeake Schools settled a lawsuit with a family that accused the staff at Southeastern Elementary School of abusing their disabled son by regularly restraining him in a “special chair for the sake of convenience.” So how much did the school system pay up? Well, they won’t say.
But what happened to cause the settlement in the first place? Well, for those who don’t know, the lawsuit revolves around a child referred to in court documents by the initials, N.G., and his parents by the initials R.P.-G. and E.G. The lawsuit was filed in September of 2015 when the child was only eight-years-old. According to court documents, the parents accused the staff at Southeastern Elementary of improperly restraining their son, “who has Down syndrome, autism, and significant developmental delays.” They claim “staffers placed the boy in a Rifton chair for their own convenience, in an attempt to control what they perceived as the boy’s problematic behaviors, such as leaving his chair during instruction.”
Despite the parent’s claims, the School Board pushed back, denying that the staff members in question violated the child’s rights. According to documents related to the settlement claim, the “staff used the chair to support the boy’s posture in order to provide a safe learning environment with the least restrictive means possible.”
Now that a settlement has been made, it’s only natural that news agencies and curious members of the public would want to learn more about the settlement. Typically information like legal settlement amounts is released in Virginia upon the filing of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, even when the agreements remain confidential. However, when The Virginian-Pilot went to file an FOIA request back on February 27 to learn of the payout amount, they were met with a brick wall. In response to their request, “attorneys for the school system and the child’s family” asked the court to “permanently seal the agreement and keep the financial details secret.” Why? Well, one of their reasons was that “VML Insurance Programs, a private entity funded largely by taxpayer money that is not subject to the state’s FOIA laws, will actually cut the check to the child’s family.”
Additionally, attorneys on both sides of the settlement argued that the settlement payout will not be “paid with public funds.” However, many of the “insurance company’s clients are exclusively governmental entities operating in Virginia.” Also, the family wanted total and complete confidentiality, especially where the settlement payout is concerned. According to one of the attorneys, “settlements are a desired outcome of litigation, and the ability of the parties to keep settlement terms private makes settlement more likely and the terms better for the parties.”
When asked to comment, Chesapeake Schools Superintendent James Roberts declined. School Board member Christie New Craig also declined, but cited a “blanket policy against discussing anything that involves students.” She said, “it’s taxpayer money, but it is also a student matter. We just don’t comment on student matters.” Many other School Board members also declined to comment.
But some in the community would still like to know the details around the settlement and the payout amount. According to Megan Rhyne of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, “municipalities generally are allowed to keep the full terms of a settlement confidential. But how much a public body pays normally is made public.” Actually, she can’t even remember a case “where a public agency was not required to disclose how much was paid in a legal settlement.” She said, “there is often some resistance, some hesitation, but usually that information is released in the end.” She went on to say that it’s just good “good public policy for members of the community to be able to know how much their government spends to defend and settle lawsuits.” Even when it’s an insurance company cutting the check to settle a lawsuit, the public “still has a right to know what happens.”