This Is Not Education: Abuse of Autistic Students in Pennsylvania

Content warning: This post contains discussions about abuse of people with disabilities, including physical assault and the use of restraints.

Last week, a major civil rights lawsuit was settled in Pennsylvania when seven families agreed to accept five million United States Dollars to resolve a case they filed against a teacher and her superiors, arguing that she abused the students in her care and her superiors did not take adequate steps to address it. It is the largest case of its kind in history in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest in US history. The teacher has already served six weeks for reckless endangerment; the question here isn’t whether she abused her students or not, but why the district failed to do anything about it.

These students were in elementary school. They were restrained to chairs using duct tape and bungee cords. The teacher stomped on the insoles of their feet, slapped them, pinched them, and pulled their hair. These nonverbal students apparently weren’t provided with communication tools that they could have used to report to their parents, which meant that the teacher was free to lie about the source of the injuries these children experienced while in her classroom. Horrified aides in the classroom reported it, and the teacher was simply reassigned.

The teacher’s defense was that she didn’t have training or support. This may well have been true. However, if that was the case, she should have recused herself from that classroom. Aides confronted her about her classroom behaviour and she said she ‘didn’t know how to stop.’ I’d say that asking to be taken out of that classroom would have been a pretty fucking good way to stop. If the defense to that is ‘well, it would have ended her teaching career,’ then may I suggest that a person who physically abuses children is not fit to be a teacher? That a person who feels that stomping on the insoles of a child’s feet is an appropriate method of ‘discipline’ is clearly not someone who should be in charge of a classroom?

‘We weren’t sure how a jury would view these facts, especially since children were involved,’ an attorney for the defense said, which is a polite way of saying ‘we are well aware that if this case had gone to trial we probably would have paid more than five million.’ The funds are being put in trust for the children, who, among other things, are in need of therapy.

There have been ‘hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and death related to the use of these methods on schoolchildren during the past two decades.’ The House of Representatives actually recently passed a bill addressing this issue, responding to a report from the General Accounting Office documenting abuse of school children across the United States.

The restraint of children with disabilities in school is, unfortunately, not at all notable. It’s a widespread and common practice and I see stories about it in the news practically every week. I’m sure a perusal through the recommended reading archives here would turn up several examples. This doesn’t make it any less vile or wildly inappropriate. I am heartened that legislation has been passed to address the issue, but outlawing abuse isn’t enough, and it’s clear that better training, accountability, and transparency are needed. The reports of those aides shouldn’t have been ignored. That district should not have reassigned the teacher to another classroom.

What is remarkable, and important to note, is that it takes a lot of money to take a case like this to court. Which means that settlements of this kind are only really available to families with at least some money. Even with lawyers willing to volunteer time, taking a case through the courts requires time, energy, the ability to pull supporting materials together, and patience. These things are not options for all families. Especially for parents with disabilities, the barriers to getting to court can be an obstacle so significant that even if they want to fight for their children, they might find it impossible to take a case to court.

Access to justice should not be dictated by social status and economic class, but it often is.

We shouldn’t have to pass laws saying it’s not ok to duct tape children to chairs, but we do.

9 thoughts on “This Is Not Education: Abuse of Autistic Students in Pennsylvania

  1. I don’t understand how a person needs “training and support” to know that they shouldn’t stomp on a child’s feet and pull their hair.

  2. I totally agree with AWV that it takes common sense, not training, to know that you shouldn’t abuse children. Besides, no-one would’ve made such an excuse if the children had been non-disabled.

  3. There are places like Community Legal Services, or Community Legal Resources, in most major cities and many smaller ones. While that doesn’t cover the cost of energy, time, and willingness to go to court, it does at least put legal services on a low-to-no fee sliding scale so that cost isn’t the only factor in whether someone can bring forward a lawsuit.

    The Attorney General’s office might also be willing to prosecute in such cases, which would mean no financial outlay for legal services again.

    Legal resources DO exist for people who can’t afford to pay. To say that justice is available only to those who can pay is to erase good organizations that do nothing but work for those who can’t afford typical legal fees. By making it sound like they do not exist, it becomes that much less likely that someone who needs them will know to look for them.


  4. Even with lawyers willing to volunteer time, taking a case through the courts requires time, energy, the ability to pull supporting materials together, and patience.

    That is a direct line from the OP, there, Kali. s.e. mentioned that there are pro-bono services available. nowhere in the post did ou imply that these services do not exist. In fact, what ou DID do what highlight the fact that while these services are available, they are often overtaxed as far as energy and resources go. Ou also mentioned that these services also depend on the parents and caretakers of the children who have already been traumatized and abused, that their resources and energy and time have to be taxed and strained. Court cases involve time away from work, which does equal money. It also interferes with routines for children, it is taxing on the spoons of parents who may also have disabilities (which seems to be erased from your scenario).

    But let’s remove class for a moment (even though you can’t ever really do that). Do you think these services are really universally accessible to everyone across the board, irrespective of race? With strained resources and time on these Community Services, who have waiting lists for representation, do you really think this is going to happen fairly and equally? Is the information equally available to everyone (OOPS! That’s class privilege again!)?

    Sure, the services you mention do exist, but I think it is disingenuous to imply that arguing that class privilege lead to a settlement means that people are going to think that they don’t exist.

    Just think about what you are positing here. You are kind of erasing some margins and divides with all of that ‘splainin’.

  5. RMJ: The OP said that the teacher has been serving time for reckless endangerment; I’m pretty sure that there must have been a criminal case for that to happen.

  6. If it is true that the teacher did not receive the proper training and support, that’s the fault of the district. However, it’s even more the fault of the district that she was hired in the first place. Why did the district not catch these obvious character flaws during the hiring process? More importantly, what kind of screening process is in place when it comes to interviewing and hiring teacher applicants? It’s hard enough to teach in a main-stream classroom let alone in one with special needs.

  7. Whoops, sorry s.e. for the poor reading comprehension, and thanks Bald Soprano for filling in. Reckless endangerment and a six-week sentence seems so…inappropriate to the severity of this abuse. According to Wiki, reckless endangerment is about not heeding possible harm to another individual, not about actual physical abuse of children.

  8. When I did teacher training they taught us that we are considered more culpable and responsible for a child’s wellbeing than parents because we get specific training. I found it overwhelming to comprehend, and I’m amazed on a daily basis that people leave their most precious things for me to care for and guide. But this? This is inexplicable. I’ve experience with ASD & ADHD (*some* training) and at their worst behaviour I bear-hug the child, send the class outside if need be, ask a student to call the assistant principle, because this sort of thing is exactly what they’re there for. That’s not always practical or perfect but, just for other readers, there’s a gauge of a style of management. I suppose what might also be worth mentioning is that I do teach in a mainstream classroom – they usually include a child with specific needs. This woman’s problems sound like they are character-based, not training- or profession- based.

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