Harford County Public Schools violated federal and state law in the case of a special needs student who was allegedly abused at the John Archer School last October, according to the results of an investigation by the Maryland State Department of Education.
The state investigation found violations including the improper use of a “stabilizing” device, but did not find an illegal use of mechanical restraints as had been alleged by both the student’s mother and the Maryland Disability Law Center.
Janice Wright recently released the findings of the investigation that she requested in April regarding her 14-year-old son Matthew, who is non-verbal. Wright said she now hopes to warn parents of other non-verbal students about abuse occurring in schools, calling it a “national problem.”
Wright’s complaint stemmed from an incident she witnessed on October 14, 2011 at Matthew’s public school, the John Archer School for special needs students located in Bel Air.
On that day, Wright said she found her son Matthew strapped into a device called a “Tumble Forms Grasshopper”. The manufacturer describes the device as a “mobile positioning system” consisting of padded shapes and forms used to assist special needs students who need physical support. Wright found Matthew, who is able to walk on his own, strapped into the device lying on his stomach with his arms behind his back and his upper body elevated by a padded wedge.
Wright never authorized the use of the Tumble Forms Grasshopper, which she said posed a potential danger to her son given his history of seizures and orthopedic issues. Because he is non-verbal and was strapped down in a prone position, Wright also feared that Matthew’s ability to communicate distress was compromised. Wright later learned from Matthew’s doctor that her son had suffered a torn tendon, which she believes was the result of the device being used on more than one occasion. Before the incident, Wright also noticed an unexplained bruise that she now believes came from the straps on the device.
The school was using the device to transport Matthew from the bus to the school when he refused to walk on his own by dropping to the ground. Wright had met with school staff about the problem but says she was told that a special tricycle and a wheelchair were being tried to transport her son, who was non-violent and weighed 75 pounds.
Upon discovering Matthew in the device, Wright withdrew him from the school and contacted the Harford County Sheriff’s Office. A police investigation in late October found 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.”
After Superintendent Robert Tomback ignored requests for a personal meeting, Wright and several other parents went to a school board meeting in March, voicing their concerns about Matthew and incidents involving other students at the school. Shortly thereafter, John Archer Principal Deborea Montgomery was replaced and moved to a central office position. At the time, Teri Kranefeld, manager of communications for HCPS, declined to provide an explanation for the move.
In April, Wright filed her official complaint with the Maryland State Department of Education.
In all, the state found violations in two of four allegations; one regarding the improper use of the Tumble Forms Grasshopper and another regarding behavioral supports that Matthew Wright was entitled to receive. No violations were found regarding two other allegations.
Key to the overall findings was the determination by MSDE that John Archer staff used the Tumble Forms Grasshopper as a “stabilizing device” under Maryland regulations, and not as a “mechanical restraint” as Wright alleged. The use of mechanical restraints requires additional safeguards and parental permission each time restraints are used.
However, MSDE found that the Tumble Forms Grasshopper was used improperly on Matthew because the physical therapist who authorized the device did not have sufficient knowledge about its use. The state also found that there was no documentation that the therapist determined safe positioning in the device for Matthew or that the device was used according to the manufacturer’s guidelines.
The second violation found by MSDE involved Wright’s allegation that school staff did not follow Matthew’s Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). The plan required that he receive certain behavioral supports to ease his transition from the bus to school.
Teri Kranefeld, manager of communications for HCPS said later that transition supports were provided, but were not documented. That is contradicted, however, in an August 16th letter from Marcella E. Franczkowski, assistant state superintendent for special education, who wrote in a follow-up report that MSDE found Matthew “was not provided with any of the supports that he was required to receive when transitioning from the bus to school and between classes throughout the school day.” (Emphasis in the original)
MSDE found no violations in two other allegations made by Wright. Wright had alleged that HCPS did not ensure Matthew’s IEP addressed his behavioral needs, and that HCPS did not follow proper procedures when providing Home and Hospital Teaching to Matthew following the incident.
Corrective Action, Reconsideration and Response
As corrective action for the two violations, MSDE required HCPS to determine compensatory services to address the lack of behavioral supports provided to Matthew. MSDE also asked HCPS to determine whether the violation involving the use of the Tumble Forms Grasshopper was unique to this case or a pattern of non-compliance, and if a pattern, to ensure proper use of the device with other students.
Dissatisfied with the results issued by MSDE in early June, Wright requested MSDE reconsider the case and enlisted help from the Maryland Disability Law Center (MDLC). According to the organization’s Web site, MDLC is a non-profit legal services organization and the state-designated agency mandated to advocate for the civil rights of individuals with disabilities.
In a June 22nd letter to MSDE, Alyssa R. Fieo, director of legal advocacy for MDLC, concurred with Wright that the Tumble Forms Grasshopper was illegally used as a mechanical restraint in Matthew’s case and that MSDE “erred” in its findings. Citing federal and state law, Fieo wrote that the decision to use the device was also improperly made without Wright’s consent and outside of the IEP process. The letter concludes: “MDLC therefore requests that MSDE reconsider its conclusions and find that HCPS violated the IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Act] and COMAR [Code of Maryland Regulations] by using a mechanical restraint and by violating the IEP process.”
MSDE provided a response dated August 16, 2012 affirming its earlier findings.
Teri Kranefeld, manager of communications for HCPS said last week that the violation regarding the Tumble Forms Grasshopper was an isolated case and not a pattern. She said that staff received “technical assistance” in response to the MSDE findings and the device is still available for use at John Archer.
Regarding the overall findings by MSDE, Kranefeld said she could not comment directly on the Wright’s case or a specific IEP due to confidentiality laws. However, she said that the Maryland Department of Special Education “continues to monitor all areas of services for students with disabilities throughout the county.”
Following the incident last year, Matthew was placed in a non-public school outside of Harford County and his mother Janice says that she is unable to pay an attorney to take her case further. “There’s nothing left for me to do,” she said, “There is no justice for Matthew.”
While acknowledging that there are good teachers at John Archer, Wright now wants to warn parents to look for signs of abuse in non-verbal children, including changes in behavior. Wright encourages parents to take photos of unexplained marks and to take their child to the doctor for a professional opinion when such marks are found. At school, Wright advises parents to visit unannounced and to be specific about the positive rewards that are to be included in their child’s IEP. She also links to a federal report detailing problems created by the use of restraints in school.
In a September 19th email releasing the results of the state investigation, Wright concluded: “ My hope is to help other parents avoid the heart break and frustration that we have faced this past year. We are still trying to cope with Matthew’s mistrust of people and lasting effects this abuse had on him.”
Below are the documents related to Matthew’s case, publicly released by Janice Wright:
Letter from Maryland Disability Law Center