Texas superintendent testifies in assault case involving autistic student

HUTTO, Texas (KXAN) — The jury could begin deliberating Friday on whether a Texas special education director should be charged with assaulting a non-verbal student with severe autism and lying out about it on government paperwork.

dr Stacie Koerth, along with colleague Karen Perez the principal of Hutto High School, are all charged in connection to the 2018 incident.

Court records allege Koerth and Perez forced a non-verbal 17-year-old student with severe autism into a Dickies jumpsuit, put on backwards with the collar cut-off, to keep him from digging into his pants — a behavior that drew health concerns from school and district employees.

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Former Hutto High School special education teachers and aides tested the student could be heard screaming down the hallways, was biting himself and attempting to crawl out of the bathroom where part of the incident occurred. The teachers who witnessed parts of the incident said the pair instructed teachers to hold his arms while they duct taped around his chest to secure the suit. Both Koerth and Perez have maintained they did not restrain the student.

There is no video showing inside the classrooms where most of the incident happened, according to testimony from multiple employees. There is only video of the hallway between the classrooms showing seconds of video where the student is running into another classroom with Perez appearing to hold on to his shoulders.

There were and continue to be no cameras installed in all three of the special education classrooms at Hutto High School, according to a district spokesperson. The district installation of cameras is based on parent request, and so far, no parent has requested a camera in the classroom.

Thursday, the Hutto Independent School District Superintendent Dr. Celina Estrada Thomas answered questions about why she did not reprimand or terminate Koerth and Perez, despite criminal and Texas Education Agency investigations into the incident.

Estrada Thomas testified she had no problem with the jumpsuit as a behavior modification tool or with the methods used to introduce the clothing (a board-certified behavior analyst who works for a different Texas school district tested earlier a less intrusive method should have been tried first and integrated into the student’s slowly routine).

Estrada Thomas said she called the incident “unorthodox” and “regrettable” in a letter to parents in 2020, because she felt Koerth should have guided the teachers and taken “a step back.” She also tested the incident did not necessitate termination or reprimand.

“We’ve had some conversations about handling the situation differently,” said Estrada Thomas on the stand Thursday.

Both Koerth and Perez have now tested about their part in the incident. Koerth, who had just taken the job as special education department head when the 2018 incident happened, said she held the student’s hands to keep him from biting himself, and she blocked him from leaving the bathroom until he put the jumpsuit on over his clothes.

She told jurors at no time did she use a SAMA restraint, referring to the restraint training educators within Hutto ISD receive. She tested she continued to put the jumpsuit on the student despite his attempts to leave, bite himself and scream, because she feared it would reinforce the behavior they were trying to stop.

“He was yelling, because we were changing his routine,” Koerth said on the stand Friday.

In the courtroom Friday, the state and defense for Koerth have argued over which definitions of restraint jurors should be allowed to consider during deliberations. Judge Laura Barker ruled she would allow state attorneys to bring up the Texas Education Code’s definition of restraint but only when discussing the charge of tampering with government records.

Jurors were instructed to only reference the Texas Penal Code’s definition of restraint when considering the other charges.

Koerth and Perez are accused of not reporting a restraint was used when filling out paperwork on the incident, specifically on a program called eSped used by school districts in Texas.

According to Hutto ISD Assistant Superintendent Dr. Robert Sormani, who tested Friday, checking that box would prompt another form for documenting the restraint. Those forms go to the Texas Education Agency in a batch at the end of the year, according to Sormani.

The case against Koerth and Perez has drawn the attention of several disability rights advocacy and policy groups, including Disability Rights Texas and The Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, who have had representatives in the court room throughout the week.

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