Special Needs Education

Abuse of CCSD special-needs students met with secrecy and indifference, parents allege

Steven Miller

Catch Me If You Can: Documenting the Clark County School District’s pattern of hiding the abuse and corruption taking place in special needs education


If you’ve ever seen the movie Catch Me If You Can, you’ll remember the title character, portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio.

Frank Abagnale was a bright, charming but conscienceless teen who’d discovered he had a talent for scamming people.

Eventually, with the help of his wife and a good FBI friend — plus multiple stints in prison — Abagnale abandoned the marauding life.

Today he teaches businesses how to protect themselves from people like his younger self.

As Americans regularly learn, however, significant national institutions nowadays think like the young Abagnale.

Their M.O., also, when it comes down to it, is: Catch Me If You Can!

Many Southern Nevada special-needs families — as evidenced by their lawsuits in federal court — see the Clark County School District as such an institution.

A current case in point is the ongoing federal lawsuit, Hurd et al v Clark County School District et al, filed in 2016 by the six parents of three autistic children.

CCSD in 2014 had placed the children in the classroom of newly hired and untrained special-ed teacher James P. Doran, who then, according to several teacher-aide witnesses and police, subjected the children to multiple forms of physical and verbal abuse.

Over the course of the school year, the nonverbal children — a nine-year-old girl and boys aged nine and 10 — had, according to witnesses and the parents’ legal complaint, been pushed, pinched, kicked, stepped upon and grabbed forcefully enough to bruise and cause bone and tendon damage.

Doran — a 240-pound body builder — had thrown the nine-year-boy into classroom “bean bag” furniture and shoved him into the wall, said witnesses. The girl had allegedly been lifted off the floor by her hair. Repeatedly, Doran had slapped, hit and grabbed the children’s hands and forcefully thrown them downward. “Nice hands!” he reputedly said.

On one occasion during the presence of the 10-year-old in Doran’s classroom, says the complaint, the boy’s mother picked him up after school one day only to find that his hand and arm hurt so badly he wouldn’t allow his mom to touch them.

“His mother questioned Doran regarding the injury,” states the Hurd complaint, “and Doran denied having any idea of the cause. Upon examination at the emergency room that night, the physician informed the parents … that [the] arm was so swollen due to trauma that they were unable to determine from the x-rays whether there was a fracture to the bone. As a result of the injury, the arm …was in a cast for over a month.”

And far from trying to address the repeated pattern of abuse that takes place in special needs classrooms, the district has resorted to its “catch me if you can” attitude.

David Rostetter, the Independent Monitor for the Los Angeles Unified School District, summarized how this attitude is rampant throughout public education while speaking to EducationWeek reporter John Tulenko in 2016.

“I’ve had a lot of superintendents around the country,” Rostetter began. “I’ll go to them and say, ‘This is really bad over here. You know, it’s a budding lawsuit and it’s patently illegal.’

“And their answer will actually be, literally be, ‘I’ll deal with it when we get sued about it. Thanks for your advice, Dave.’”

In Nevada Journal’s new eight-part series, Catch Me If You Can, Nevada Policy Research Institute Vice President Steve Miller investigates just how this attitude at CCSD is allowing the continued abuse of the district’s most vulnerable students.

Read the first installment of this in-depth report, Catch Me If You Can, by clicking here!


Series index: 

Part 1: A current lawsuit, Hurd v. Clark County School District, shows that CCSD continues to violate decades-old federal & state special-ed laws — with non-verbal autistic kids pushed, pinched, kicked, stepped upon and grabbed forcefully enough to bruise and cause bone and tendon damage. (Read more)

Part 2: The abusive, often primitive culture repeatedly reveals itself when parents lose patience with the district and file against it in the federal court system. Although long prohibited by state law, the abuse continues behind closed doors — in so-called “self-contained” classrooms. (Read more)

Part 3: In the 21st Century’s first decade, conscienceless abuse by CCSD special-ed staff destroyed chances for Bobby, a four-year-old, to surmount his disability and eventually lead a normal life. While his young, still-plastic nervous system was taking on what would be its permanent form, beatings and other aggression almost certainly caused permanent brain dysfunction. (Read more)

Part 4: Sworn testimony in the current Hurd lawsuit reveals that in 2014, CCSD violated state law by placing James Doran, a 240-pound body builder and weightlifter — who had never taught before and lacked a special education license — in charge of a closed Forbuss Elementary autism classroom containing nonverbal fourth and fifth-graders. (Read more)

Part 5: Parents’ lawyers filed with the court this July multiple detailed witness accounts of incidents of alleged abuse by Doran that reputedly had been reported to Principal Shawn Paquette — but, to no effect. Although state lawmakers in 1999 had made illegal a previously used CCSD practice of making certain special-needs students run to “get their energy out,” Doran himself testified that Paquette had expressly told him to take a particular autistic student, S.S., “by the hand and run him.” (Read more)

Part 6: Suing parents took advantage of a key provision in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to depose CCSD itself as to its actual policies regarding the abuse of disabled students. In July, CCSD co-counsel Kara Hendricks was compelled to admit —following the records search plaintiffs had demanded — that the district does not possess records of the discipline of adults determined to be guilty of child mistreatment. Arguably, that suggests “deliberate indifference,” which in the federal courts, means financial liability. (Read more)

Part 7: A decade ago, attorneys representing the small boy who’d been battered in what became known as the Preschooler II case suggested to the Clark County School District a way it could prevent similar problems in the future. If cameras were installed in the classrooms where nonverbal autistic kids were being taught, they said, physical assaults on them by district employees would be much less likely to occur. CCSD, for some reason, was extremely hostile to the idea. “We’ll go to the Supreme Court over that. We’d rather pay a lot of money, but cameras will never happen,” said the district, according to an attorney in the room at the time. (Read more)

Part 8: The 1970s federal IDEA legislation was a naïve attempt to evade the dark reality of humanity’s in-built and reflexive capacity to discriminate against the different and the “other.” As all the lawsuits against Nevada public schools should have made clear by now, the contemporary Silver State model for special education no longer suffices. As currently structured, it is actually quite complicit with the darker side of human nature — a nature that, ignoring all the reasonable rules written into federal, state and school-district regulations — regularly reveals itself. Nevada lawmakers need to ask themselves: How long are these realities to remain unaddressed? (Read more)

RelatedFixing Special Needs Education in Nevada, an 8-part series

Steven Miller

Senior Vice President, Nevada Journal Managing Editor

Steven Miller is Nevada Journal Managing Editor, Emeritus, and has been with the Institute since 1997.

Steven graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Philosophy from Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna). Before joining NPRI, Steven worked as a news reporter in California and Nevada, and a political cartoonist in Nevada, Hawaii and North Carolina. For 10 years he ran a successful commercial illustration studio in New York City, then for five years worked at First Boston Credit Suisse in New York as a technical analyst. After returning to Nevada in 1991, Steven worked as an investigative reporter before joining NPRI.