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N. Syracuse, NY: District settles lawsuit; school abused autistic student

June 20, 2023, Syracuse, NY, CNY Central: I-Team: CNY school district settles lawsuit, faces another over autism services

NORTH SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Robert and April can't help but smile when asked to describe their son. They said he's "a bundle of joy. Good heart, good kid. He's sweet, no ill-will in his heart for anybody."

The parents and their child, whose name will not be revealed, just finished their five-year legal fight with the largest suburban school district in Central New York, the North Syracuse Central School District. Their son, who is non-verbal and on the autism spectrum, is at the heart of this case, originally filed in May 2018.

Court papers obtained by the I-Team show how the student's parents say the North Syracuse School District denied necessary services to their "severely autistic child." One document claims "the evidence is overwhelming and clear" that school leaders were told quote "numerous times and in numerous ways by various experts and professionals that without (ABA) Therapy, he would be unable to make any social and academic progress."…

"He didn't receive it, he never received it while he was in the district," said the student's father, Robert.

The family started with an impartial hearing between them and district leaders. They discussed aides and teachers, even class sizes that would work best for their child and the hearing officer ordered school leaders to make those changes.

"There were multiple medical professionals that made recommendations that they decided not to follow," Robert explained. He said he was told by the district that providing the resources, which could have meant an outside aide to accommodate this, would affect union negotiations. Documents show the Assistant Superintendent saying a therapist "can't come and be there with him as an assistant to him because we have our own staff. They just can't."

Records go on to indicate the district's Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources testified too, saying labor contracts do not prevent defendants from hiring professionals outside their labor unions when union members are not qualified to perform the services needed to a disabled student.

"None of them denied that he needed it, none of them denied that it would be beneficial. They just said it couldn't happen there," Robert said.

But, there was another problem the child's parents said they discovered. They said the district "chose what's easier for them, [which] was to strap a kid, who can't say stop, who can't say no, can't say I'm scared, can't say I've got to get up and use the bathroom, any of that ... in a chair." Robert said the fact kept popping up in all his therapy notes and his school records. The student's mom, April, said it made her feel guilty, "that we couldn't protect our child."

A pre-trial deposition interview shows questioning about this between the family's lawyer and Dawn Hussein of the district's Early Education Program.

Documents allege the district used a Rifton chair to restrain the child during the 2016-2017 school year, which is a specific brand name that makes chairs for "active seating" in sizes needed for small children up to an adult.

Hussein said she did see him in that type of chair in his classroom, and at one point told the family's lawyer that the student "often would buckle himself into the seat and was never strapped forcefully in the chair."

His father said his son was not potty-trained at the time and couldn't tell anyone when he had to go to the bathroom. "He can't tell you his wants, fears, hopes, dreams, frustrations," Robert said of his son's nonverbal diagnosis.

Court records show Hussein testified that the method should've only been used if recommended after a Functional Behavior Analysis, and went on to say there was no such recommendation made.

"I think that there are a lot of particular students that are nonverbal or non-speaking, they're at extra risk for this, because they just don't have as many ways to communicate their wants and needs," explained Christine Ashby, who is a professor of inclusive education and disability studies at Syracuse University.

Restraint has become used so frequently in schools, as just another tool in the toolbox, and that's really damaging ... We really need to think about that these are human beings, these are young children, and that we need to treat them with respect.

The I-Team asked Ashby if it makes her worry that there are other kids and families dealing with a similar issue to Robert and April's, to which she responded, "Absolutely, and unfortunately, it's a nationwide problem, we have I would say an epidemic of restraint and seclusion in a lot of places."

The case went to trial and on June 2, the two sides reached a settlement, including a $1.55 million payout from the district to the family. They told the I-Team they've moved out of state now and their son, who is now 10 years old, is thriving at his new school.

Their lawyer said this needs to serve as a reminder of what all schools are responsible for, hoping "that they will engage with parents, with doctors, with experts, so that no other child with autism or on the autism spectrum disorder will be denied the opportunities to develop in a school district just because they want to employ their own methodologies."

The I-Team asked April what she wants other parents to know about their painful journey, whether their child has special needs or not, she answered,

They can advocate for their child, and if they know what is right for their child, they need to advocate for it. Especially if their child doesn't have a voice of their own.

A second lawsuit

While investigating this first family's claims, the I-Team uncovered a newly-filed lawsuit from another family in the North Syracuse Central School District. The parents of a 5-year-old girl with autism claim their child was strapped to a chair in the classroom during the 2021-2022 school year.

This family's complaint paperwork says the matter was investigated by New York State Police and the State Education Department, and the district was ordered to stop the practice. The I-Team has reached out to the North Syracuse School District for comment on both cases. A spokesperson for the district said they can't comment on litigation.


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