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Lawsuits allege ‘systemwide failure’ protecting disabled children in Utah schools

Lawsuits allege ‘systemwide failure’ protecting disabled children in Utah schools

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SALT LAKE CITY — Two lawsuits filed by the Disability Law Center this week claim the state of Utah failed to protect two disabled children from abuse at the hands of Alpine School District employees.

One of the lawsuits filed Thursday was on behalf of a blind student with autism who the center says was physically and verbally abused by a bus driver; the other is on behalf of a child who was allegedly subjected to various forms of “behavior intervention,” including being deprived of food and water and strapped to a chair for hours at a time, while attending a school for children with disabilities.

Both incidents took place in the same school district, according to the suits. But the alleged abuse “speaks to a larger, system-wide failure that places our most vulnerable children in harm’s way each time they board a school bus or enter a public school,” said the center’s legal director, Aaron Kinikini, in a statement.

The cases also illustrate broader issues in special education, Kinikini told KSL.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Alpine is one of the few districts that have completely standalone, completely segregated schools for kids with disabilities,” he said. “I think that approach in and of itself tends to leave them vulnerable to the types of abuses we see in these lawsuits.”

Many students in such programs are nonverbal and have behavioral issues, he said, yet aides who work with them generally are paid low wages and do not have extensive training in de-escalating conflicts and safely restraining students.

The first lawsuit describes two incidents that reportedly took place in June 2018, in which a school bus driver is accused of hitting and “violently” restraining a 16-year-old blind, nonverbal teenage girl with autism, twisting her arms and fingers, and slapping her on the face. During the alleged attacks, the bus driver “cruelly taunted” the girl, according to the center, asking her if she “likes that,” calling her an “ornery little cuss,” and saying, “It hurts, doesn’t it?”

Alpine School District said in a statement that it took swift action following the alleged abuse involving the bus driver in June 2018. Administrators were alarmed and sickened by what they saw in a video recording of the alleged abuse, but they quickly removed the employee and turned the video over to authorities.

“Alpine School District is committed to recruiting and hiring the most qualified teachers and employees who care about children,” the statement says. The district declined comment on the pending lawsuits themselves.

Multiple district aides witnessed the incidents and did not intervene or report what they saw, according to the lawsuit.

Utah simply has to do better, and the children whose parents have courageously brought these lawsuits certainly deserve better.

–Aaron Kinikini, Disability Law Center legal director

The girl was a student at Horizon School, a school for students with special needs.

All school staff who interact with children with disabilities are required by the district and the Utah State Board of Education to undergo certain training, the center says, but neither the bus driver nor the aides present had received such training.

The second lawsuit filed Thursday alleges that a 10-year-old boy, who also has autism and is nonverbal, was subjected to abusive “behavior intervention” techniques in 2017 and 2018 while attending the Dan Peterson School, another school in the Alpine district for students with special needs.

The boy’s special education teacher regularly withheld food and water from the child as a disciplinary measure, despite his parents’ request that the teacher not do so because the boy’s medications increased his hunger and made him easily dehydrated, according to the lawsuit.

The suit also claims the teacher or aides regularly restrained the boy in a Rifton chair — a device prescribed by a doctor or physical therapist for children who need support to sit upright — despite the child not needing the chair. Using a Rifton chair punitively has resulted in “deaths, serious injury, and has been the subject of frequent litigation,” the lawsuit states.

When asked by the boy’s parents, staff said the child had gotten into the chair voluntarily and buckled himself in, according to the suit, but reports from several board certified behavioral analysts present in the classroom contradicted this claim.

Other alleged abuses include tying the boy’s hands together behind his back with twine.

The case is one “that sounds, honestly, almost Dickensian in its themes of torture, and just shocking in the 21st century, to say the least,” Kinikini said.

Both lawsuits point to what the center describes as “districtwide failures to adequately train staff who serve students with disabilities, and statewide systemic failures by USBE to fulfill its most basic oversight, monitoring and enforcement functions.”

“Utah simply has to do better, and the children whose parents have courageously brought these lawsuits certainly deserve better,” Kinikini said in a statement. “Accountability and meaningful reform are their goals, and should be ours as well.”

Contributing: Annie Knox, KSL; Marc Giauque, KSL NewsRadio

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