FORT WORTH, Texas — In 2019, staff at a Weatherford elementary school told K.S. that her son, at the time a 7-year-old, had been physically restrained in class.

Over the next few weeks, the school district reported to the mother that her son had been restrained again. And again. And again.

K.S.’s son is on the autism spectrum, and she knew that led to behavioral issues at school. But she didn’t see how it could be necessary for school staff to repeatedly grab or hold down her 51-pound child.

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K.S., who asked to be identified with her initials to protect her son’s identity, pulled her son out of his special education class at Stephen Austin Elementary School. She followed up with a request for copies of the school surveillance footage of each time her son had been restrained.

When she watched that footage, she said, she realized that the restraints she’d been told about were only the beginning.

“From what I’ve seen in the videos,” K.S. said, “they failed him completely on every level.”

Surveillance footage showed staff grabbed or otherwise restrained K.S.’s 7-year-old son multiple times per day in a 53-day period, according to a lawsuit that she has filed against the school district.

The school had not reported many of the restraints to K.S., she said, even though the district is legally required to document restraints and inform parents and guardians of each occurrence.

For example, video showed staff pulling K.S.’s son out of a chair by his leg — one of many restraints she said she never would have known about if she had not seen the footage.

When watching the videos, K.S. said, “you have to literally look for the times they’re not touching him.”

The Crisis Prevention Institute defines a restraint as any physical force that restricts a child’s movement. Legally, restraints used on students must follow relevant health and safety standards, according to Texas law, and should not intentionally inflict “significant physical or emotional discomfort or pain” on a student.

In one video, four staff members assist in holding down the child down as he cries, “Help me!” In another video, the boy takes a teacher’s pen, and a staff member responds by grabbing the 7-year-old and holding him with one arm around his neck. In another instance, photos that K.S. shared with the Star-Telegram show a teacher’s hand completely covering the boy’s face as the boy reaches up to push the hand away.

K.S. filed a lawsuit in September 2021 accusing the school district of discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and unreasonable seizure. As of March, K.S.’s lawsuit against the Weatherford school district was ongoing.

In response to questions about the lawsuit, a district spokeswoman said the district “strongly denies the inflammatory allegations in the lawsuit and any suggestion that the District has mistreated its students with special needs” and said the allegations “reflect a very slanted and one-sided tale.”

The allegations of abusive restraints at Weatherford are not an anomaly, advocates say.

Advocates say children at Texas schools are excessively restrained by overworked or under-trained staff members, causing physical and mental trauma. Students with disabilities are disproportionately restrained compared to the general population of students, according to a 2020 study by Disability Rights Texas, and often the restraint is in response to behaviors that stem from the child’s disability.

Texas laws often protect school staff from legal repercussions for restraining children, advocates and attorneys say, leaving parents with little recourse when they feel their child is being abused at school under the guise of safety restraints.

Thousands of restraints

Restraints are only supposed to be used to protect a child or others from harm, but advocacy groups and investigative reports say school staff excessively use restraints and at times restrain children as a form of discipline or out of frustration.

Nicole East said her nephew, who has dyslexia and is neurodivergent, was restrained 37 times in 81 school days in the Frisco school district in the third grade. The boy received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder due to overuse of seclusion and restraint, she said.

East, a veteran who also has PTSD, moved to Dallas-Fort Worth to help her now-11-year-old nephew. She filed a records request for restraint data from Frisco and nearby school districts.

The data she got back only made her angrier.

From the 2016-17 school year to the 2020-21 school year, staff in the Frisco school district restrained students who qualify for special education a total of 3,706 times involving 403 students, according to the district’s data. Each school year, staff performed an average of about 740 restraints on students with disabilities. On average, 26% of restrained students were Black. About 18% of the Frisco special education student population was Black in the 2021-22 school year.

Black students are disproportionately restrained at schools across the state, according to the study on restraints by Disability Rights Texas. Black students make up about 12.6% of the state’s student population, but experienced 26% of the total reported restraints in 2020, according to the study.

School districts must track all restraints of students in special education but are not required to track restraints of students in the general education population unless they’re restrained by a police officer.

A spokeswoman for the Frisco school district said while Black students were restrained at a disproportionate rate, the rate was lower than what the TEA considers “significantly disproportionate.” The TEA considers a “risk ratio” of 2.5 or higher to be significantly disproportionate. The risk ratio involving Black special education students and restraints was 1.6 from the 2016-17 school year to the 2020-21 school year.

Spokeswoman Meghan Cone also said staff are trained to first implement verbal de-escalation strategies. Restraints are only utilized in situations where a student poses a threat to themselves or others or imminent, serious property destruction, Cone said.

Each campus has a team trained to intervene in crisis situations. Each member, which includes administrators, teachers and other staff, receives an initial, seven-hour training in nonviolent crisis intervention and an annual, four-hour refresher training, Cone said. The training emphasizes “physical intervention as a last resort and appropriate to the level of risk.” Crisis intervention team members must also complete the two-hour Texas Behavior Support Initiative course, which focuses on positive behavior interventions and supports for all students.

Trauma for children

East said her nephew is doing better, but still has nightmares and flashbacks.

Jolene Sanders, advocacy director with the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, said the overuse of restraints on children, especially those with disabilities, causes both physical and mental trauma.

“There is no reason to use physical force on an 8-year-old,” she said.

K.S. said she has seen that mental and physical trauma in her own son.

On one day in November 2019, K.S.’s son told teachers multiple times he was going to hurt himself. The school called K.S. to come pick him up, but when she arrived, staff would not let her see her son, she said. Instead, a school resource officer put the child into the back of a police car, according to the lawsuit, and drove the child to Cook Children’s Medical Center to be involuntarily committed.

Once at the hospital, staff at Cook Children’s noticed bruises on the child. According to the lawsuit, the hospital made a Child Protective Services report against the Weatherford school district because of the bruises.

Since the 2019-20 school year, K.S. said, PTSD has been diagnosed and her son has nightmares where he wakes up screaming. He’s afraid of the dark and has developed a stutter.

“The trauma is so extensive due directly to how he was treated by the school,” K.S. said.

H.H., a Fort Worth mom, said her then-6-year-old son, who is on the autism spectrum, was restrained to the point of abuse by staff at his former school.

While she was waiting to pick up her son at his Northwest district elementary school in 2019, H.H. said, she heard her child screaming from a nearby classroom. She ran down the hallway, following her son’s cries of, “You’re hurting me!” and found him inside a classroom. He was cornered by three staff members and covered in red marks, she said, because he wanted a chocolate from the classroom and refused to leave the room when he did not get one. She said one of the staff members told her they “have to show (her son) who is in charge.”

“By the time he got out of that situation,” she said, crying, “he was sweaty and had peed all over himself. He said, ‘They were holding me down. It hurt so bad, Mom.'”

The 6-year-old had previously told his mother that staff hurt him at school, but H.H., who knew the staff personally, thought he may have been confused. She knew sometimes her son had to be restrained at school when he was overstimulated or had a meltdown. But as she screamed at school officials from outside the classroom where he was being restrained in December 2019, demanding to know what they were doing to her child, she realized why her son had begged not to go to school for months.

In its own assessment, the school district said H.H.’s child did not qualify for special education services and filed a due process claim through the Texas Education Agency. In special education due process claims, a hearing officer decides whether a district provided proper services to a student.

A hearing officer sided with the school district in H.H.’s case. Elizabeth Angelone, H.H.’s attorney, said hearing officers in TEA due process claims almost never side with parents, which she says is evidence of bias in the system.

In 2019, 30 due process claims were filed with the TEA, including H.H.’s. Out of those, a hearing officer denied the parent or student’s claims and sided with the school district 25 times. In four cases, a hearing officer sided partially with the district and partially with the parent or student. Out of the 30 claims made in 2019, a hearing officer fully sided with the parent or student once.

H.H. filed a lawsuit against the school appealing the due process decision. A federal district judge ruled in 2021 that the school did not violate the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. H.H. appealed to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeal was ongoing as of March.

Under federal privacy laws, districts cannot address a specific student’s affairs, and Northwest district spokesman Anthony Tosie said the district cannot comment on pending litigation. Tosie referred the Star-Telegram to Northwest ISD’s restraint policy, which says restraints are used in rare emergency situations and in accordance with school policies. Northwest follows federal and state laws and regulations in regards to special education services, Tosie said.

Physical harm

Along with mental trauma, students can be physically injured by restraints at schools.

Teachers and staff are required to be trained in Crisis Prevention Institute restraint techniques, which are considered safe techniques to restrain a child. Those CPI-approved restraints are mostly variations of holding a child’s arms in certain “control positions.”

But the Crisis Prevention Institute warns through its training modules that all restraints include the risk of physical and emotional harm, including neurological damage and death.

In March 2021, Xavier Hernandez died at John Peter Smith Hospital after he was restrained by multiple staff members at Boulevard Heights, a Fort Worth school for students with disabilities.

Medical examiners ruled Hernandez, 21, died from the combined effects of physical restraint and an antipsychotic medication.

Clint Bond, the Fort Worth school district spokesman at the time of Hernandez’s death, said the district engaged a third party after the incident to conduct an investigation “that included, but was not limited to, practices, policies and procedures related to restraints.”

In November, a teacher and her classroom assistant in the Burleson school district were arrested and accused of using improper restraints on preschool special education students.

Cheyenne Oakley said the school’s principal told her that teacher Jeanna Mangus and paraprofessional Holly Monroe “inappropriately touched” her 3-year-old son. The pair would cup the 3-year-old’s mouth for up to 30 seconds until he would stop crying, Oakley said, or gasp for air, and stick their fingers under children’s armpits and claw them, knowing it wouldn’t leave a mark.

In an internal message to parents, the principal said staff at Norwood Elementary are trained only to use CPI restraint techniques and only when necessary to protect a child, but that the two women were not using CPI techniques.

Teachers often do not face charges

H.H. and K.S. filed police reports about their children’s restraints, but charges were not filed in either case.

Texas law generally protects school staff from facing assault charges for restraining students. Under Texas Penal Code 9.62, educators often have blanket immunity against use of force charges, so they cannot be charged with assault if they say the educator “reasonably believes the force is necessary … to maintain discipline in a group.” Whether a restraint is considered excessive or necessary is a subjective decision often left up to a judge or jury, Sanders said.

“(The law) is so vague that anything can fall under that umbrella,” she said. “If I as a parent drag my kid out from under a table and put my kid in a chokehold, I am obviously going to have CPS at my front door. But if the same thing is done within an educational setting, there is a whole lot of protection there. And there has been for a very long time.”

Sanders, in her work with the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, said she has seen incidents where a child came home from school with bruises and the teacher admitted to having harmed the child. But even in those cases, “where the actor is acknowledging, ‘I shouldn’t have done that,'” she said, “they’re still protected under that penal code.”

Teachers who have killed students through improper restraints have not only been legally absolved, but they have continued teaching.

In 2002, a Texas teacher pinned 14-year-old Cedrick Napoleon, who weighed 129 pounds, to the floor and lay on top of him. Napoleon, who was in a special education classroom at the time, died. Napoleon’s death was ruled a homicide, but the grand jury did not indict the teacher. As of 2009, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office, the teacher was teaching in Virginia.

Teachers and staff can also claim they physically restrained a student “in loco parentis” — the legal term for “in place of a parent.” The legal doctrine grants teachers the right to act in place of a parent when a child is threatening harm to themselves or others. In K.S.’s case, she reported Weatherford staff to police, but the district successfully claimed in loco parentis and staff were not charged, she said.

“Courts give great deference to school policies and procedures with regard to ‘discipline,'” said Angelone, who also was one of K.S.’s attorneys. “Because the courts give schools such deference and will not substitute the court’s own judgment with regard to such matters, teachers are largely protected.”

In some cases when staff members physically restrain or harm students, it’s the students who face criminal charges.

Colleen Elbe, a supervising attorney with Disability Rights Texas, said the group often sees felony charges against children that are the result of staff restraining or having an altercation with students.

“We’re under the belief that anytime you put your hands on a kid, it increases the likelihood of trauma and injury to staff and students,” Elbe said. “The last thing we want to see is a child having a reaction against a staff member restraining them and to be criminalized for that reaction. A reaction you or I might have.”

In Copperas Cove, a central Texas school district, a child was forcefully restrained multiple times when he tried to leave the assistant principal’s office in 2018, according to a lawsuit the family against the school district.

The child’s individualized education program allowed him to leave a room if he got too upset, said Angelone, who represents the family in the suit. The child tried to push past the assistant principal, who was blocking the door, and two staff members held him face-down on the floor and laid on top of him, according to the lawsuit. A school nurse noted his lip was cracked and he had a shoulder injury; he was referred to a doctor for a possible fracture.

The orthopedist said the child’s injury was “suffered due to an assault,” according to court documents, but was unable to confirm if his shoulder was fractured. The suit alleged the staff members used excessive force. A judge ruled in 2020 that the Copperas Cove staff members had qualified immunity from assault claims.

United States District Judge Alan Albright wrote in his opinion the ruling was based on the “long history of the Court allowing such restraints or even more extreme variants of restraint.” Albright also notes that Texas “allows a school administrator significant leeway in punishing a student” because Texas’ civil and criminal laws should provide adequate accountability if a student is wrongfully punished.

Albright sided with the school district.

The same day he was restrained, staff members pressed charges against the child, saying the child assaulted them when he tried to escape the restraints. The boy’s charges were dismissed by the district attorney.

Alternatives to restraints

The website for the Crisis Prevention Institute, the group that advises schools on restraint techniques, urges schools to focus on nonphysical forms of de-escalation. Their recommendation is based on the trauma the physical restraints can cause and research that shows alternative methods have better outcomes for staff and students. In one 2016 case study at a school district, according to CPI’s website, school staff were taught to focus on verbal rather than physical interventions. The result was a dramatic decrease in assaults on staff and out-of-school suspensions in the district.

Roxann Breyer has been the head of Hill School, a private school in Fort Worth for children with learning differences, for 16 years. She said when a child acts out, the behavior usually reflects a communication problem, not a behavioral one. At Hill School, the average ratio of teachers to children is 1:4, and staff have regular meetings with parents. By working with the students’ parents, staff can create individualized plans to figure out what a child’s triggers are and how to help them when they are upset.

In her 16 years at Hill School, Breyer said, only one student has ever been restrained by staff.

“Instead of figuring out how to get the kid to calm down, we need to have that time of reflection of why is this kid acting this way now,” she said. “What set this child off? What is upsetting this student?”

Teachers at Hill School are usually able to recognize if a child has a “tantrum” coming and are able to use techniques specific to that child to de-escalate, Breyer said.

Not all teachers or schools have the resources to handle those situations.

Staff shortages, already a problem in Texas schools, were exacerbated by the pandemic. Teachers might have more students than they can handle in one classroom, and if a child acts out, they might respond with discipline or restraint.

“I think these teachers in many cases are over-stressed, overworked and overwhelmed, and they have too many kids that they are responsible for,” Breyer said. “I worry these teachers are in survival mode for themselves. I don’t think it makes it right. We don’t touch the kids here unless it’s a pat on the back.”

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