Parents sue LP schools alleging child was restrained

July 28, 2018

La PORTE — The parents of an 8-year-old autistic girl are suing the La Porte Community School Corp. on allegations the girl’s special education teacher restrained her in a homemade mechanical restraint chair.

Charles and Heather Castle allege in their lawsuit, filed June 29 in U.S. District Court, a teacher and two paraprofessionals at Kingsford Heights Elementary School belted their daughter into a restraining chair to subdue her in the classroom.

The Castles allege the school district violated its own policies and the State of Indiana’s policies regarding student restraint, and actively sought to keep the parents from knowledge of the restraint chair’s use.

According to the Castles, the school never informed them their child was placed in the restraint chair and attempted to keep Charles Castle out of the classroom. Her parents became suspicious soon after the fall semester began, when she began to “exhibit new and troubling behaviors” at home, including limited desire in usual activities, emotional outbursts and refusal to use a car seatbelt, the lawsuit states.

Paula Nichols, director of the South La Porte County Special Education Cooperative could not be reached for comment. La Porte Community School Corp. Superintendent Mark D. Francesconi stated he was aware of the allegations.

“Our understanding of the details of what happened are certainly not what is being represented,” said Francesconi.

The complaint states the Castles’ daughter is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The girl suffers from many typical autism symptoms. She has difficulty adjusting to change, is sensitive to sensory inputs and struggles with expressing herself in mutual conversation, but she is intelligent and highly talented in art and sculpting.

The Castles enrolled their daughter in the La Porte Community School Corp.’s special education preschool in 2013, and she attended kindergarten, first and second grade as a student in the Life Skills classroom at Kingsford Heights Elementary School.

The Life Skills program is designed to address “functional academics, social skills and life skills” for disabled children. Life Skills students are taught in a separate classroom, where the students are separated from their non-disabled, general education peers.

The girl had an Individualized Education Program (IEP) with the special education program since her schooling began in 2013. None of her IEPs and behavior plans provided for the use of a restraint chair. In the complaint, the Castles describe concerns with the school and their daughter as early as her kindergarten year.

On one occasion, the lawsuit states the girl came home with a scratch and bruise to the side of her neck. On another occasion, the girl returned home from school wearing no shoes, socks or coat. On a third stated occasion, she came home with a bruise to her cheekbone and elbow. The Castles state they did not receive a written incident report for any of these occurrences.

The Castles said they noticed a significant change shortly after the 2017 fall semester began, when their daughter began to resist getting dressed for school and refused to keep her seat belt on in the car. The Castles noted their daughter began having nightmares and extreme meltdowns unlike any they had seen before.

In the complaint, the parent’s report noticed bruises and abrasions to her hips, back, and arms and cite one occasion on Sept. 5, 2017 when their daughter came home with abrasions to the front thigh area on her new pants. The Castles say they did not receive a written incident report regarding this incident.

Charles Castle stated beginning in the fall 2017 semester, the school began preventing him from entering his daughter’s classroom by requiring him to wait between the double set of doors leading to the classrooms with his daughter until the teacher arrived at the doors. The administrative assistant would then activate the automated keyless entry system to unlock the doors from her desk and the teacher would escort his daughter to the classroom, without him.

The lawsuit states that on Sept. 21, Charles Castle greeted a staff member and walked into his daughter’s classroom where he was “shocked” to see a homemade wooden restraint desk with his daughter’s name on it. He also observed an additional, similar restraint desk next to the one with his daughter’s name, with a tan belt long enough to fit around a child and the desk.

The desk was made from construction-grade plywood with a wooden partitions on the bottom, right and front sides, the lawsuit states. Felt had been glued to the outside faces of the panel, but the inside of the panels were left bare and rough to the touch.

The lawsuit states the Castles asked for an emergency meeting and on or about Sept. 29, 2017, they met with school staff regarding the restraint chair. During the meeting, Nichols allegedly told the parents she had spoken with the school corporation’s attorney and “they had not done anything wrong.” Nichols also allegedly told the Castles the teacher’s father had constructed the desk.

The lawsuit notes that use of mechanical restraint in schools is prohibited by Indiana law, by section 513 IAC 1-2-5 of the Indiana Administrative Code. The Indiana Administrative Code defines mechanical restraint as the use of a mechanical device, material, or equipment attached or adjacent to the body that the student cannot remove and restricts the freedom of movement.

The defendants are the La Porte Community School Corp.; South La Porte County Special Education Cooperative; Paula Nichols, director; Rebecca Jeffers, supervisor of La Porte County Special Education Cooperative; Marcia Alexander, principal of Kingsford Heights Elementary School; Jennifer Oberle, Life Skills classroom teacher; paraprofessionals Teresa Vinson and Katrina Magill; administrative assistant Natasha Henry; and Terry Malstaff.

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