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Kern County settles class-action lawsuit with disability rights groups over juvenile facilities

Kern County has settled a class-action lawsuit filed by two disability rights groups that challenged alleged discrimination against disabled youth took place at the county’s juvenile detention facilities.

Under the terms of the settlement, the county will transition its three juvenile facilities from a corrections model to a treatment model, which will aim to ensure youths with disabilities are identified and housed in a safe and homelike environment, and given equal access to educational and rehabilitative programs.

“They’ve agreed to train their staff to reduce the use of pepper spray, to reduce the use of restrictive housing, mechanical restraints — any sort of use of force — and they are going to learn and understand the needs of youth with disabilities,” said Michelle Iorio, a staff attorney with Disability Rights Advocates, which represented the plaintiffs, along with Disability Rights California. “We’re hopeful that this will result in a more therapeutic model, which I think is a big change from the punitive model that they had in place.”

In an investigative report completed in 2018, the two organizations said young people with mental and behavioral disabilities were subjected to restraints, solitary confinement for up to 23 hours per day and pepper spray for nonviolent acts more than other youths.

The settlement, which includes a three-year monitoring stipulation, requires the county train staffers to reduce use of force, and develop a new team to oversee the Americans with Disabilities Act and related programming.

The lawsuit specifically targeted the Kern County Probation Department and the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, which oversees and provides education at the juvenile facilities. Both government agencies disagreed with the allegations raised in the complaint, but said they would work to meet the requirements of the settlement.

“The Kern County Probation Department has a long history of meeting or exceeding state standards and we strive to provide supportive services that incorporate both accountability and opportunity for those we are charged with rehabilitating,” Chief Probation Officer T.R. Merickel wrote in a statement to The Californian. “We are excited for the opportunity to expand on the great work being done by our staff who work with youth in our care on a daily basis. Through the support received from the County of Kern and the longstanding partnership with Kern County Superintendent of Schools, we are confident the efforts made will result in improved services to youth and a better working environment for staff.”

The statement from the Superintendent of Schools largely followed along the same lines.

“Working in a positive, proactive fashion with the plaintiffs, KCSOS believed it was in the best interest of our students and families to resolve this matter quickly and amicably,” spokesman Robert Meszaros wrote in an email. “Additional program enhancements will supplement the current regular and special education services. For instance, staff will receive additional training in regards to mental health diagnoses and behavior, de-escalation strategies and restorative practices. KCSOS is proud to partner with the Kern County Probation Department in resolving this matter and will continue to provide a positive environment that delivers equal access to educational and rehabilitative programs and services.”

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.

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