The mother of a special needs student has filed a complaint with the Maryland State Department of Education alleging that John Archer School staff illegally used mechanical restraints on her son, causing him physical harm, and committed a number of violations of state and federal special education law. MSDE spokesman Bill Reinhard said the formal complaint filed by Janice Wright was received on April 10 and that the state is “committed to a thorough investigation.”
Wright’s son Matthew was a student at John Archer School in Bel Air until October 14, 2011. On that day at the school, Wright alleges that she saw Matthew strapped face down in a device called a “Tumble Form Grasshopper”, which she later learned was being used to transport her 14-year-old from the bus into the school. Wright says in the complaint that her son is non-verbal and has a documented history of seizures and orthopedic issues that contraindicate the use of such a device. Wright also alleges that use of the device was not prescribed by a health professional and that she had not agreed to the use of the device in her son’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), as is required by law.
A police investigation in late October concluded that there was no intent on the part of John Archer staff to harm Matthew and that based on the evidence, no crime was committed. However, the report concluded:
“It is the opinion of this investigator that the position Mathew was placed in, with his arms strapped at his side and torso elevated, [p]ut him in a position placing him in danger of ‘positional asphyxia’. This danger is compounded by the fact that Mathew is non verbal…
Based on the facts of this case it would appear that this incident is a result of poor training in the use of the Tumble Form Grasshopper, and it appears that, since the device is described as a therapeutic device, that it was not intended to be used as a transport device.”
Wright first made her allegations public at a school board meeting on March 12, where, based on an anonymous letter from someone claiming to be a teacher at the school, Wright also said that John Archer Principal Deborea Montgomery dragged another student face down by his legs through the school lobby and outdoors onto the concrete in 2009.
Following the school board meeting, Teri Kranefeld, HCPS manager of communications, said that the school system would investigate the dragging claim. Montgomery, who had been the school’s principal since 2009, was moved on March 26 to a central office position in Harford County Public Schools; Kranefeld said at the time that she could not discuss the factors surrounding the “transition.”
In response to a series of questions posed by The Dagger about Wright’s allegations regarding her son Matthew, including the formal complaint, Kranefeld issued the following statement:
“Due to confidentiality laws that protect our students, I cannot speak to the student’s case specifically. However, I can tell you that the Tumble Form Grasshopper is a piece of adaptive equipment designed for special needs children and young adults. It is primarily used for Physical Therapy and assists in positioning and safe transport. The Tumble Form Grasshopper is still available at John Archer and staff members have been trained on the proper technique for usage.”
Prior to Wright’s complaint, no other allegations regarding the use of restraints in HCPS had been received by MSDE since 2008, according to MSDE spokesman Reinhard.
In the 2008 case, the parents of a John Archer student alleged that their 12-year-old autistic son was subjected to the improper use of a lap belt and a “Rifton” chair as restraints. Similar to Wright’s complaint, the parents in the 2008 complaint also alleged that the use of the equipment was not prescribed by a health professional, nor was it included in the student’s IEP.
Following an investigation that included interviews with John Archer staff, MSDE found that the Rifton chair was not used during the school year in question and that the lap belt was not used as a means of restraint. Rather, the use of the lap belt was documented by school staff as a “protective and stabilizing device” to aid the student’s attention to school work.
However, MSDE found that because the lap belt had not been prescribed by a health professional, nor was it included in the student’s IEP, the device was used improperly. As a result, MSDE ordered HCPS to ensure that the violation that did not recur and that it did not represent a “pattern of noncompliance” at John Archer School:
“MSDE requires that HCPS take steps to determine if the violation regarding the use of protective or stabilizing devices is unique to this case or if it represents a pattern of noncompliance at [John Archer.] If it is determined that a pattern of noncompliance exists with regard to the requirements, HCPS must review the IEP, and revise as appropriate, to ensure that the use of protective and stabilizing devices is provided in accordance with the regulations. In addition, HCPS must inform MSDE of the steps taken to ensure the violation does not recur, including a description of how HCPS will evaluate the effectiveness of the steps taken.”
In response to the 2008 order, Bill Reinhard from MSDE said that Harford County Public Schools “provided sufficient documentation that steps were taken to ensure the appropriate use of protective or stabilizing devices.”