Education

‘How dare they do this to my son?’ Mom sues after autistic child handcuffed at school

A mother says the Waxahachie school district, Felty Elementary School and two police officers failed her autistic son when he was held down in a classroom for five minutes and put in handcuffs in March 2017.

On Oct. 15, she filed a federal lawsuit against the district, school principal and police officers, saying they violated her 8-year-old son’s civil rights. The lawsuit does not include her or her son’s last name.

The woman is identified in the suit as Megan S. and has asked that her last name not be used to protect her son Bradyn’s identity. She said the district failed repeatedly to follow federal requirements that could have prevented the trauma her son experienced on March 3, 2017.

Six days after that event, Megan S. filed a complaint with the Texas Education Agency against the school district. More than a year later, in July 2018, a state Special Education hearing officer ruled in the district’s favor, saying the school complied with its legal obligations. In the decision, the hearing officer said the school’s meetings and plans for Bradyn accommodated him effectively and the school claims Megan did not attend all those meetings.

The lawsuit filed in Dallas federal court last month says Waxahachie ISD “committed acts of intentional discrimination” against Bradyn and displayed “professional bad faith and gross misjudgment.” The police officers and Principal Carrie Kazda are accused in the suit of using “unjustified and unreasonable force” when they restrained Bradyn.

Autism is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Symptoms can include difficulty communicating and interacting with other people and sensory problems, including an aversion to touch.

“My son is not a bad child, my son has autism,” Megan S. said. “He has difficulties, but there are things you can do, that I do, that help him through those. They’re teaching a special education class. They should know these things. But unfortunately they didn’t.”

Waxahachie school district, Felty Elementary and the Waxahachie police department said they were unable to comment on the due to the pending lawsuit.

Handcuffed at school

On the morning of March 3, Megan S. went to the office at Felty and requested a behavior intervention plan for Bradyn. Two weeks prior, Bradyn had damaged a classroom during a meltdown at school. Megan S. wanted to know what caused the situation to escalate and what could be done to prevent future problems.

“I sat down with (the diagnostician) and said, ‘Look, we have to figure out what we’re going to do because I’m worried,’ ” she said. “And she was like, ‘We’ll have to get consent forms’ and brushed me off — she didn’t even schedule a meeting.”

Just a few hours later, Bradyn was in his classroom where he was getting increasingly frustrated. He’d gotten in trouble several times already that day and now he couldn’t get his shoe on.

Megan S. said it is not hard to tell when her son is getting frustrated.

“His ears turn bright red, it’s very tell-tale. It’s not an all-of-a-sudden thing,” she said. “There are several signs I told them to look for so they can prevent the escalation.”

Nonetheless, Bradyn became more irate. Soon, he was throwing things in the classroom and yelling. His teacher, Lora Lockamy, had the classroom evacuated.

“They cleared the classroom, so they could have called anybody else. A psychologist, a counselor, the principal — they didn’t call any of those people,” said Debra Liva, a paralegal and child advocacy expert who is helping Megan S. on the case. “It was a teacher who went straight to 911.”

Tracy Gooch, the other special education teacher, picked up the phone and called the police. She didn’t tell the other teachers in the room or administration, according to the lawsuit.

“I have a student at Felty Elementary who is out of control, and we need assistance with him,” Gooch says in the recorded 911 call. “He’s kicking and hitting staff and the classroom had to be evacuated.”

During the seven-minute phone call with police, Gooch never says Bradyn is autistic or in special education. She only says he is 8 years old and has “done this many times.”

At 1:38 p.m., Officer Derrick Young arrived at the school, according to the case report. In Young’s bodycam footage, office staff and principal Kazda look confused when he enters. They say they aren’t aware of anything happening in the school or know who called the police.

Young tells them the classroom number Gooch provided and he and Kazda walk to Bradyn’s classroom.

As Young walks into the classroom, Bradyn yells and throws a chair at him. Young catches it and steps toward Bradyn, pulling his arms behind him and pushing him toward the ground.

Young repeatedly tells Bradyn to stop as the child yells and struggles in his grip.

“Calm down, calm down,” he tells Bradyn. “Are you OK? Are you OK?”

At this point, no one has told Young he is inside a special education classroom, that Bradyn is autistic or that Bradyn is speech impaired, according to the lawsuit.

In the video, Kazda walks over to Bradyn and leans down to talk to him as he yells at the officer. She puts her hand under his chin to prevent him from hitting his head on the desk he’s facedown on top of.

“Bradyn, Ms. Gooch had to call 911 because she’s worried about your safety,” Kazda says as Bradyn groans.

Bradyn screams again and Young tells him to calm down.

“Is he diagnosed?” Young asks Kazda. She does not say anything and her head is not visible on camera, but according to the lawsuit, she nods her head.

“Why did you throw that chair at me?” Young asks Bradyn.

“Shut up!” Bradyn responds.

“Bradyn, calm down,” Young says again.

“I can’t!” Bradyn screams.

In an interview, Megan S. said her son is speech impaired, meaning he cannot verbalize what he wants like other children may be able to.

“The officer is like, ‘Calm down, calm down,’ and he’s verbalizing, ‘I can’t, I can’t.’ And he can’t. He doesn’t have that on-and-off switch like we do,” Megan S. said about the footage. “Even his spurts of ‘Shut up, shut up,’ that was his way of saying ‘Leave me alone.’”

About three minutes after Young entered the classroom, another officer, Mike Lewis, comes in.

“Can you sit up, Bradyn?” Kazda asks. “Is there any way we can … “ In the video, Kazda’s words are drowned out by screams. Megan S. said this is the point where Kazda asks the police to handcuff Bradyn, but audio is unclear.

“Yeah, we can cuff him,” Lewis says.

“Your behavior right now is determining what’s about to happen with you, do you hear me?” Lewis says as he crouches beside Bradyn. “You can make a decision to calm down or you can make a decision to not calm down and you’re going to be put in some handcuffs.”

“I don’t care,” Bradyn says.

Lewis puts handcuffs on Bradyn.

“Is this a …?” Lewis asks.

“Yes, a special needs class,” Kazda says.

During the five minutes Bradyn is on the ground, no one can be heard tellingthe officers Bradyn is autistic or speech impaired.

Bradyn is walked to the front office. Meanwhile, Megan S. gets a call from the school saying Bradyn is in trouble, then another call saying police are there.

About five minutes later, she walks into the principal’s office and sees Bradyn in a chair in handcuffs.

In an interview, Megan S. said at that moment in Kazda’s office, she was just trying to keep her composure.

“I couldn’t even think,” she said. “I was livid. How dare they do that to my son? An 8-year-old little boy who can’t defend himself, can’t speak for himself.”

Megan also tells officers for the first time that Bradyn has autism.

After interviewing teachers, the police leave about 36 minutes after Officer Young arrived.

‘They dropped the ball’

Megan S. said Bradyn had a history of behavior problems. By law, schools are supposed to develop intervention plans to prevent future problems, but Megan S. said Felty and the Waxahachie School District failed to do that. This failure resulted in her son being handcuffed at school, traumatized and hospitalized for eight days due to suicidal thoughts, the lawsuit filed on Bradyn’s behalf says.

Bradyn was placed in special education in the school district in October 2013. In 2014, he started school at Felty and in 2015 and 2016, the school had annual Admission, Review and Dismissal meetings or ARDs — meetings held for special education students.

In the two months before Bradyn’s 2016 ARD in October, he had nine behavior incidents, including stabbing another student with a pencil, slapping a student with a ruler and spitting in a student’s face.

However, principal Kazda and other ARD committee members did not recommend an intervention plan or any preventive measures for him, despite Megan’s requests, the lawsuit says.

In February 2017, Bradyn had five more major disciplinary events within a month. The school did not take any formal action, according to the suit.

“His ARD was in October not too long after the school year started and there had been a number of behavioral incidents,” Jordan McKnight, Megan S.’s attorney, said. “Yet at that ARD, they found his behavior was not impeding his learning. They dropped the ball.”

A Functional Behavioral Analysis (FBA) is the bare minimum a school is supposed to do for a special needs student having behavioral problems, McKnight said. The school did not conduct one of those tests for Bradyn’s behavioral problems, the lawsuit says.

“That’s what let it fester and let it escalate to the point that the police were called,” McKnight said.

Liva, the child advocacy expert, said the school failed to help Bradyn.

“It’s not that (autistic children) are bad children and don’t know how to behave, it’s that they think differently,” Liva said. “There are reasons why these kiddos react the way they react, and that’s the whole reason behind these behavioral plans is to help them understand how they react and why.”

Suicidal thoughts

Neither the district nor Felty School made any changes in Bradyn’s education in the month after he was handcuffed, the lawsuit says.

On March 16, Bradyn was hospitalized for eight days due to suicidal ideation, according to the lawsuit.

“He was talking about wanting to kill himself. As a mom, to hear your child say that is the worst feeling in the world,” Megan S. said. “Because you want to shelter them, and I couldn’t do that because I wasn’t there at the school. I trusted them to do that and they let him down.”

Megan S. did not want to send Bradyn back to Felty, but she started getting warnings from the school about truancy.

She sent him back, and a few weeks later in April, she received another call from the school that Bradyn had thrown a phone at a teacher and an ambulance was at the school.

On May 1, nearly two months after Bradyn was handcuffed at the school, a formal ARD washeld after he threw the phone at the teacher. The committee determined that Bradyn’s behavior was due to his disability, but made no determination about the incident on March 3, according to the lawsuit.

Six days after Bradyn was cuffed at the school, Megan S. filed for due process with the Texas Education Agency.

Criteria met for special needs student?

In April 2018, Bradyn’s case with the Texas Education Agency went before a Special Education hearing officer.

After several days of testimony from both sides, the hearing officer, Lucius Bunton, ruled in favor of the school. In his summary decision, he writes Bradyn’s case did not show that the district’s actions did not comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law that makes available free appropriate public education to children with disabilities.

Among the conclusions in Bunton’s 14-page decision:

  • The ARD committee for Bradyn in 2015 developed accommodations for him including positive behavior reinforcements and frequent breaks.

  • Bradyn’s behaviors prior to October 2016 were troubling, but did not prevent Bradyn from receiving educational benefits.

  • District witnesses claim Megan S. was given notice of ARD meetings but did not attend.

  • The ARD meeting in May 2017 effectively created a behavior plan and strategies for Bradyn.

  • Megan S. and her legal team were unwilling to come to an agreement on Bradyn’s program, inhibiting a resolution.

“(The hearing officer) is saying the school followed IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and did enough, that they did everything they possibly could for the child,” paralegal Liva said. “It’s a joke.”

When the school year ended, Megan S. and her family moved from Waxahachie to get out of the school district. She said Bradyn “is doing much better now at his new school.”

She said she’s hoping her lawsuit will bring attention to the way schools handle autistic children.

“I just pray that it doesn’t ever happen to another student,” Megan S. said. “That’s my main focus here in holding them accountable. Because I don’t want this to happen to another kid, because it’s very traumatic and I don’t think any kid should ever go through that.”

Kaley Johnson: 817-390-7028, @KaleyJohnson6
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