Lake Elsinore school’s Autism Program under investigation

The Lake Elsinore station of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department is investigating a report of child abuse that allegedly occurred in the Autism Program at Cottonwood Canyon Elementary School. The report was filed on August 30 by Ace Atkinson, the executive director of Area Board 12 of the State Council on Developmental Disabilities. Atkinson is a mandated reporter who filed the report after Elizabeth Gregory, who witnessed the child abuse, came forward and told him and the Valley News her story.

The report’s allegations

According to the report, on April 21, 2005, from 12 to 3 p.m., Elizabeth Gregory witnessed the improper restraint and handling of a student in the school’s Autism Program. Gregory, a Temecula resident, works as an autism behavioral interventionist and was at the school observing a student who was her client. Gregory said she was sitting at a table in the courtyard area with her client’s teacher when shesaw a boy run out of a classroom. She said she saw him trip, fall and be inappropriately lifted by his wrists by an aide. Gregory said the boy, who looked to be about 7 years old, tripped on the corner of a large playroom carpet that was soaking wet and lying in the courtyard to dry. “He fell on the wet carpet on his face and stomach. He got wet and was upset that his clothes were wet and that he hurt his face,” Gregory said. She said the boy “screamed and had a hysterical tantrum” and an aide ran out of the same classroom he’d exited. She tried to calm him down. He kicked his legs at her, so she grabbed his right ankle and right wrist and lifted him up in the air. Gregory said he was about two feet off the ground, which appeared to have scared him and made him angry. “He started flailing more and the aide almost dropped him, so she sat him back down on the ground,” Gregory said. “Then she lifted him by his wrists about a foot off the ground.”

Gregory was about 10 feet away from the scene and said she witnessed the boy’s arms go pale. “I watched the color drain out of his arms,” she said. She said it made her mad to see how the aide “was inappropriately handling the situation.” Gregory said another aide came out and helped the first one carry the boy by his wrists back into the classroom. “You never lift them that way to restrain them,” she said.

Gregory said the aides didn’t take the time to find out what was wrong with him or understand that he was hurt — they just assumed that he needed restraining. “It was a hard fall for him on the wet carpet,” Gregory said. She added that he seemed to have a sensory problem with wetness. She also said the carpet was a hazard and shouldn’t have been drying in the middle of the courtyard.

Later, at recess, Gregory noticed that the same boy had his pant legs and shoes taped around his ankles with clear packing tape. “Those shoes were taped on real good,” Gregory said. She’d heard about the school using tape so the students would keep their clothes on. “I heard that it’s a common thing but that’s the only time I saw the tape,” she said. Gregory said instead of taping on students’ clothing so they won’t remove it, they should use positive intervention. “They should praise them every 20 minutes for keeping on their clothes or provide them with a sensory diet,” she said. “You find appropriate ways to work on sensory issues.”

Gregory also heard that there is an enclosed area in a classroom where low-functioning students are maintained and neglected. She was told that they sit inside the area and chew on toys and stim. Stimming is repetitive body movements or repetitive movement of objects. This behavior is common in many individuals with developmental disabilities; however, it appears to be more common in autism. An individual engages in these behaviors to block out the over-stimulating environment and his or her attention becomes focused inwardly.

Gregory said there is a lack of guidance in the classroom and too many students for the teacher to handle. “She’s got too many kids in there,” she said.

Other unreported problems

Gregory said the Autism Program has other unreported problems, such as students running loose, and recounted another incident that happened that day. After recess, while she was returning to class with her client, a teacher stopped her to socialize. While they were talking, Gregory said an aide came out of a classroom holding up a preschool-age girl and asked the teacher, “Hey, did you lose one?” The teacher replied, “Yeah, I was just looking for her.” Gregory said the teacher’s attitude was nonchalant and she wasn’t actively looking for the girl because she was chatting with her.

Gregory said the school has a Discrete Trial Program and that day she also saw a student run out of the classroom where the program is held. She’s heard that students often run out of the program, which provides intensive intervention. Gregory said it isn’t set up properly and the teacher who oversees it doesn’t have the appropriate background to manage it. The discrete trial is the primary teaching method for a number of the behaviorally-based interventions used in teaching children with autism. A discrete trial is a single cycle of a behaviorally-based instruction routine. A particular trial may be repeated several times in succession, several times a day, over several days (or even longer) until the skill is mastered. There are four parts, and an optional fifth, to a discrete trial.

Gregory said she has never seen the gate to the Autism Program locked. She’s been at the school seven times over the past three years and the gate has never been locked, which she said bothers her. The gate is about 12 feet from the nearest classroom door, where the lowest-functioning students are inside. Gregory said a stranger could walk onto campus and steal a student or a student could easily escape. Also, the buses pull up right outside the gate and there is a busy street a short distance away.

Aides don’t have much training, according to Gregory. Once she saw an aide laughing at a boy who was spraying water from a faucet onto walls and chewing on toys. The aide didn’t realize that she should stop him from those behaviors. Instead, she said to him, “You’re silly. Why are you doing that?” Gregory said the aide didn’t understand autism and she tried to explain his behavior to the aide. Gregory told her that he was seeking sensory input and the aide didn’t know what that was. “Sensory is a key part of autism and it’s extremely important to know if you’re working with autistic children,” Gregory said. Gregory also noticed that aides were holding students by their wrists and swinging them in circles at recess. She felt this wasn’t safe for the students. She explained that autistic students don’t read their body’s signals and that the swinging could actually be hurting their wrist joints.

Gregory said services aren’t being provided to students despite what it says in their Individual Education Plan (IEP). “I’ve heard that occupational therapy isn’t followed up on when it’s appropriate,” she said. Parents often find out later that the school hasn’t provided services it was supposed to. Gregory said some parents are afraid to complain about problems with services. “They’re afraid of services getting worse over bitterness,” she said. According to the California Department of Education (CDE), there have been 29 complaints filed since 2000 by parents against the school district for IEP violations.

Gregory wanted to complain to the school’s principal, Ginny Kishbauch, about the problems she witnessed in the Autism Program, but her client’s teacher said it would be useless. The teacher, who asked not to be identified, told Gregory that she’d already told Kishbauch about the problems and no action was taken. Gregory thinks that most of the parents don’t know what’s happening. “They don’t know children are being taped up and stuff,” she said. “They have a lot of faith in the school. A lot is hidden from them.”

A parent’s perspective

Katherine Villalobos of Lake Elsinore is the mother of an 8-year-old student in the Autism Program who had her clothing taped. She said she gave verbal permission for daughter’s clothing to be taped after her daughter came home from school one day last year with a six-inch piece of tape on her dress. Villalobos said she called the teacher about why tape was on her daughter’s dress. The teacher explained that it prevented her daughter from removing her clothes for sensory reasons. Also,

feeling the tape distracted her from removing her clothes. “She liked the feeling of the packaging tape,” Villalobos said. She volunteered in her daughter’s classroom last year and said that she saw one other student’s clothing taped. The other student was trying to remove her shoes for sensory reasons and the teacher wrapped tape around her shoelaces so she couldn’t untie them. Villalobos said the taping isn’t done to be hurtful but to be helpful. “Sometimes you have to do unorthodox things with autistic children,” she said. Her daughter’s clothing was taped for about six months. The teacher has stopped taping her clothes because she’s learned not to remove them at school. “I don’t want to complain about the taping thing,” she said.

Villalobos said that there is a cubicled area where low-functioning students are kept. She said that they’re kept there so they won’t escape from the classroom and an aide sits in front of the opening to block students from exiting.

She doesn’t like having the Discrete Trial Program at school.

She said she had the program in her home and was able to participate in it, which she thinks parents should do. Now that it’s at school, the parents seemingly can’t participate in it. “We were lucky,” she said.

Villalobos agrees with Gregory that the aides don’t have enough training. She said the speech therapy services at the school are fine but the occupational therapy services are “ridiculous.” According to her, there are always different therapists, there no proper format for therapy and not enough time devoted to it. “They do an exercise with your kid and leave,” she said. Villalobos said she remembers the gate being open one day while she was volunteering. It was lunchtime and she went out the gate to her car to get her lunch. “I do remember walking through the gate once,” she said. It concerns her that the gate might not be locked all the time.

Despite some issues, Villalobos believes the Autism Program is good overall. “I’m very happy with the Autism Program,” she said. “More parents need to get involved. It works for me because I do get involved.”

The school district’s response

Sharron Lindsay, the superintendent of the Lake Elsinore Unified School District, contacted the Valley News after learning from the CDE that the newspaper was investigating the district’s Autism Program. She said that she was aware of only one student who had had her clothing taped because her clothing was too large for her. “We had the permission of the parents to tape clothing onto her,” she said. Lindsay, who recently announced that she is retiring, said she didn’t know if the teacher managing the Discrete Trial Program was qualified for the job. “I really couldn’t answer that,” she said.

Keith McCartney, the district’s assistant superintendent of Personnel Services, said that the teacher has a bachelor’s degree and is currently taking coursework for a certificate in applied behavioral analysis. He said the teacher is qualified to start managing the program but needs to earn the certificate. According to the CDE, there are no requirements for managing a Discrete Trial Program under federal law or the California Education Code.

Kishbauch said she couldn’t comment on Gregory’s allegation that a student was picked up by his ankle and wrists because she wasn’t aware of it. “I didn’t hear about it,” she said. Claudette Beaty, the district’s assistant superintendent, was also unaware of the incident. When asked if it was ever proper to lift a student by the wrists, Beaty said, “If he was falling down a hill, I might grab him by the wrists.” She said it would depend on the situation and the question was too hypothetical to answer.

McCartney said that the teachers have Crisis Prevention Intervention training, which teaches them how to physically protect themselves from an out of control student and transport the student to a safe place. He said the aides haven’t had such training. “An adult just doesn’t drag a child by the arm,” he said. “We shouldn’t pick them up in any manner that would injure them. I think that everyone around there eventually needs the training.”

Kishbauch admitted that the gate should have been locked when it wasn’t. She’s taken additional steps now to make sure it’s locked. “I’ve told custodians and staff to be mindful to keep it locked,” she said. Regarding keeping the low-functioning students in an enclosed area, she said it’s a distraction-free workstation and they’re not kept in it all day. Kishbauch said a teacher did tell her about things that needed to be looked into and that she followed up on it. However, she wouldn’t comment on her investigation, saying it was confidential. She added that in the last four years she’s filed police reports concerning students but couldn’t say how many involved autistic students. “I don’t separate autistic children from my regular education students,” she said.

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