Texas teachers say alleged restraint of student with autism was ‘wrong’

HUTTO, Texas (KXAN) — The trial of a Texas special education director accused of assaulting and unlawfully restraining a 17-year-old non-verbal student with autism is entering its fourth day. The father of the victim is set to take the stand for the first time in defense of the teachers Thursday morning.

dr Stacie Koerth, as well as her colleague Karen Perez, are accused of forcing the student with special needs into a Dickies jumpsuit to keep him from digging into his pants. A problem multiple teachers tested had become a serious health concern for the student, staff and for his classmates.

Koerth and Perez are also charged with failing to document the alleged restraint as required by state law, according to court records. The principal of Hutto High School is charged with failing to report the incident in the required 48 hours. He is set to go to trial next month.

Catch up on trial coverage

Throughout the week, multiple former and current special education employees who witnessed the incident in November 2018 took the stand to describe what they tested was “wrong” treatment of the student. One of the employees, who identified as a special education job coach for Hutto ISD, expressed concern about testing in a case involving a higher up in the special education department.

KXAN reached out to Hutto ISD about this dynamic but has not heard back.

The incident was only partially captured by hallway surveillance cameras. There were no cameras set up in the three Hutto High special education classrooms in November 2018 — despite a 2016 state law allowing them to be placed in contained classrooms upon request. Hutto ISD has not clarified whether cameras are in these classrooms now.

Thursday, retired Hutto High special education teacher Sarah Yanoush, who has nearly 30 years of experience as a special education teacher, tested the bathroom behavior Koerth attempted to extinguish in November 2018, in her opinion, might have been due to a medical issue, and she told as much to supervisors at the district beforehand.

Yanoush said Koerth and Karen Perez ordered the Dickies jumpsuit as a possible solution to the bathroom issue the student was exhibiting and brought it to the school in hopes special education teachers would try to get him to wear it, adding it might need to go on backwards .

Yanoush said in court Wednesday she tried to get the student to put the jumpsuit on the morning of the incident, but the attempt had been unsuccessful, and the student removed his leg from the jumpsuit immediately after placing a foot in. Yanoush tested she told Koerth on the day of his visit to the school the attempt to get him to put on the jumpsuit had not gone well. To which, Koerth said she would show them how to put the jumpsuit on the student, according to Yanoush.

The employees, and a private nurse for one of the students who was present that day, said the student could be heard screaming loudly from the classroom bathroom where Koerth and Perez were attempting to put on and keep the jumpsuit on the student. Two teachers who were watching tested the student was struggling, biting himself and trying to escape the bathroom — but was being blocked from leaving by the pair.

The teachers also tested duct tape was applied to the jumpsuit — around the student’s waist and chest, not the victim’s skin — to prevent the student from taking it off again. He had previously ripped the zipper, according to multiple teachers who tested.

The teachers all said they did not call a school nurse or report the incident directly to police that day. Several expressed regrets on the stand over not reporting the incident sooner. The private nurse tested she reported the incident to child protective services days later.

“I wish I would have stood up for [the student]. I wish I would have stopped what was going on in that bathroom,” said retired teacher Yanoush on the stand Wednesday.

Another current special education teacher with Hutto ISD, who said she taught the student in middle school and during his senior year of high school, said the student often screamed during the school day, especially when teachers were working to correct a behavior. That teacher was not present during the incident, according to her testimony.

The student’s father Daniel Thompson told KXAN in a previous interview he believes Koerth and Perez should not be charged related to this incident.

“I do not believe they lost their tempers or anything like that. They were just trying to do what is best for [the student]and in my book, that makes them heroes and not criminals,” said Thompson.

The superintendent of investigation Hutto High said in a statement in November 2020 the district’s own found Koerth and Perez used “unorthodox measures,” but they found the employees had not committed a crime or any misconduct worthy of suspension or termination.

“They are respected and admired by peers, students, and parents. Their records in education are stellar. While the tactic used by Dr. Koerth and Mrs. Perez was unconventional and regrettable, no actions were taken with ill intent” said Superintendent Dr. Estrada Thomas in 2020.

The teachers called to the stand Wednesday also painted a picture of an understaffed special education department at Hutto High School. Multiple teachers said the student had previously had an aide dedicated to assisting him but was not assigned an aide that school year. KXAN reached out to Hutto ISD about the staffing shortages but has not heard back.

State prosecutors showed a documented plan to address the student’s behavior of digging in his pants, a behavioral improvement plan or BIP, which was not developed by school officials until April 4, 2019 — more than four months after Koerth and Perez attempted to use the jumpsuit.

A board-certified behavior analyst, who works for a different Texas school district’s special education department, tested Wednesday jumpsuits and other articles of clothing can be used to correct behavior in a student with autism, but best practices would be introducing the clothing slowly with non – verbal consent – assent – from the student.

She described non-verbal consent as the student going along with the process and stopping once the student is displaying frustrated behaviors, like screaming or hurting themselves.

The state prosecutors brought up their last witness Wednesday. Before the defense presented its first witness, attorneys for Koerth asked the judge to order the jury to rule on the charges then, before the case was submitted. Judge Laura Barker denied the request.

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