Black Children Illegally Restrained at School

Education, Racial Justice

Black Children are Being Illegally Restrained at School

Civil Rights Lawsuit Filed Against the Town of Marblehead and Marblehead Public Schools in Latest School Restraint Case

Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR) filed a civil rights lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court against the Town of Marblehead, Marblehead Public Schools, and several Marblehead school employees on behalf of “M.W.,” a nine-year-old Black student in Marblehead Public Schools who – on more than eleven occasions in four months – was unlawfully physically restrained at school. The use of restraints at school is strictly limited in Massachusetts and forbidden for students like M.W., who suffers from asthma. On more than one occasion, physical restraint used by Marblehead school employees against M.W. triggered asthma attacks and he required emergency medical attention.   

This case is part of a growing epidemic of unlawful physical restraint being used specifically against children of color in Massachusetts schools. Earlier this year, LCR successfully settled a similar matter against the Walpole Public Schools, where a nine-year-old Black boy was handcuffed by police and forcibly removed from the classroom. Both cases involve students of color attending predominantly white school districts through the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) program. Marblehead Public Schools has a student population that is approximately 83.3% white, but only 2.6% Black.

M.W., described by his mother as “small for his age,” stands just over four feet tall and weighs only 50 pounds. He also suffers from asthma. In September 2023, he began his third-grade year in Marblehead. 

In his first four months at Marblehead, school officials physically restrained M.W. on eleven occasions, including multiple reported incidents and several that were not properly documented by the school. Incidents cited in the lawsuit include:

  • Three Marblehead employees encircling M.W. with a large gym mat, forcibly trapping him inside the mat and then pushing the mat to “transport” him to wherever they wanted him to go while entirely restricting his freedom of movement. On other occasions, while crying and begging for help, M.W. was pushed and dragged by school staff down the school hallways. 
  • Marblehead staff punishingly isolating and locking M.W. in empty rooms on multiple occasions, leaving him alone, upset, and terrified. In one incident, M.W. was violently shoved into an isolation space causing him to hit his head against the wall. 
  • Marblehead staff denying M.W. his asthma medication while in isolation, which caused him to cough so hard that he eventually threw up.
  • Marblehead staff restraining M.W. to the point of needing to be rushed to the hospital by ambulance for emergency medical treatment following an asthma attack that could not be controlled.  

Marblehead’s actions are unlawful and dangerous. M.W.’s mistreatment was originally reported anonymously to the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) by another Marblehead school employee who witnessed the abuse. Ultimately, DCF sustained allegations of neglect against five Marblehead employees. Similarly, an independent investigation conducted earlier this year found evidence of neglect stemming from one of the restraint incidents in Marblehead. Still, the school continued restraining M.W. until his mother removed him from the district. 

“There has been no accountability for the significant harm and trauma that this child continues to experience,” said Erika Richmond Walton, an attorney with Lawyers for Civil Rights. “This lawsuit was filed to send one clear message to Marblehead and other districts in the Commonwealth: unlawful physical restraints performed on children of color will not go unaddressed. It’s time for systemic change.”

Describing the impact these restraint incidents have had on both her and M.W., M.W.’s mother says: “He’s having a hard time adjusting at his new school. The teachers say he is showing signs of trauma.” She adds, “It’s very hard to see that my baby is not the same. I cry every day.” 

“We hope that with this lawsuit, this family can begin the long process towards healing. Policies against the restraint of schoolchildren must be vigorously enforced,” said Sophia Hall, Deputy Litigation Director with Lawyers for Civil Rights.