‘Catch Me If You Can,’ Part 2

Steven Miller

Is deliberate indifference to the physical abuse of its autistic students part of Clark County School District’s business plan?

An entirely outrageous allegation, you may well think.

Surely, no organization charged with educating Nevada children would allow mistreatment of a significant number of its children — right?

However, court records — specifically, federal complaints filed and adjudicated against the district over the last two decades — present a darker picture.

News stories based on those lawsuits suggest that, in too many instances, CCSD teachers and aides — either inadequately trained or vetted or both — simply lose it. Or actually turn out to have serious psychological issues themselves.

For example:

  • Mamie Hubbard-Washington, a special-ed teacher at Reed Elementary, arrested in 2007 on five counts of felony child abuse;
  • Lachelle James, a teacher aide at Variety School, arrested in 2012 on five counts of child abuse, while civil charges against her as an agent of CCSD included 72 counts of battery;
  • Lisa Smith, another Variety School special-education teacher, also resigning in 2012 after an eyewitness testified that Smith — six feet and over 200 pounds — had kicked a wheelchair-bound autistic boy in the chest, knocking him into a concrete wall where an electric outlet penetrated the back of his head.
  • James Doran, a special-ed teacher at Forbuss Elementary, arrested in August 2015 on counts of battery against three nonverbal autistic children earlier in the year. The arrest warrant had been initially issued in July but not actually delivered until the middle of the following month, while Doran continued in his teacher position with the same children under his control.

Smith’s case is of especial interest because she had been employed by the district as a special-ed teacher since 1987.

In that era, unfortunately, physical abuse of autistic and other special-needs children seems to have been routine.

Moreover, well into the late 1990s, in Nevada, as elsewhere, notions about how to help children surmount their disabilities — if one even bothered — had remained quite primitive. Clear evidence about the culture dominating Southern Nevada public-school special-ed can be found in two precedent-setting lawsuits against CCSD’s Variety School in 1997 and 1998.

1997: Derrick Eason, et al, v. CCSD

Autistic child Derrick Eason was three years old in 1992 when he entered CCSD’s special-education program. Five years later, his parents sued the district, alleging severe abuse at the hands of Variety School and District personnel, including being subjected to the “take down” procedure, being force-fed oatmeal, sprayed in the face with refrigerated water, being forced to run or walk on the treadmill with weights on his ankles or around a table continuously, having the teacher scream degrading comments at him, having numbing or noxious solutions applied to his mouth and lips to prevent him from biting himself and having vinegar put in his food.

In the take-down procedure, CCSD’s special-ed teacher and his assistant forced the student onto a mat on the ground, on his stomach, and restrained his arms and legs by forcibly crossing them behind his back. Then one of the adults sat on top of the youth, applying pressure to his buttocks or spine, and refused to get up until he cried or screamed. The procedure, according to plaintiffs, was a punishment for actions that were related to the youth’s disabilities, such as his making involuntary body movements or tics.

Likewise, even though the youth was allergic to oatmeal and the teacher had been informed of that, one of the men would hold the youth’s hands behind his back while the other forced oatmeal, mixed with the boy’s vomit, into his mouth and then held his jaws shut.

On December 6, 1995, an emergency room physician treated the seven-year-old for red marks on his neck, which were diagnosed as “consistent” with “strangulation.” The teacher’s aide, under the direction of the teacher, had choked the youth in an attempt to make him run faster on the treadmill. However, the seven-year-old, kept falling down, as his feet and legs were deformed, making him unable to run fast.

After the parents sued, CCSD claimed that it and its employees were immune from liability because the district was an arm of the State of Nevada under the 11th Amendment to the Constitution. Although the Nevada federal district court accepted that argument, neither the 9th Circuit Court of Federal Appeals nor the U.S. Supreme Court agreed.

1998: Shawn Witte, a minor, v. CCSD

Shawn Witte, who’d been diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome and other conditions, also attended Variety School and was subjected to many of the same procedures as Eason. His mother filed his lawsuit against CCSD in March 1998.

According to the complaint, he was forced to walk on a treadmill set at a high speed with weights strapped to his ankles, in an effort to tire him or prevent him from leaving the classroom. When Witte fell down on the treadmill, he was forcibly picked up and made to continue. The inability to control movements, and the impulse to move, are characteristic of the youth’s disabilities, according to experts.

He also was deprived of meals if he was unable to cut his food using the appropriate utensils. He was sprayed in the face with water if he failed to stay on task. He was forced to stay outside on the patio with no food or water for extended periods of time. He also was made to stand in a corner of the classroom for long periods, with his arms and hands behind his back.

In addition to enduring physical abuse, Witte was subjected to emotional abuse. For example, the special-ed teacher frequently yelled and screamed degrading remarks at him. He was forced to write sentences such as “I will not tell my mom,” or “I will not tic.” Witte was threatened with physical harm if he ever told his mother what happened to him at school.

1999: Nevada changes state law

In 1999, state lawmakers — responding to publicity over the Variety School procedures revealed in the Derrick Eason and Shawn Witte lawsuits — had passed into law severe restrictions on the “aversive interventions” that public-school districts could perpetrate on children with disabilities.

“Aversives” means interventions that are intended to induce pain or discomfort for a student in order to compel compliance or eliminating or reducing maladaptive behaviors.

Litigation in those cases themselves, however, continued. The Eason case finally ended in April 2004, when CCSD and the parents of Derrick Eason settled the minor’s legal claim. CCSD reportedly paid the family $50,000 and Clark County Legal Services, which had represented the family, attorney’s fees in the amount of $50,277.65 plus costs of $32,222.35.

Litigation in the Witte case continued only a month longer. In May 2004, CCSD and the Witte plaintiffs also settled. The sums paid by the district to the family and to Clark County Legal Services were identical to those it paid in the Eason settlement.

However, actual practices in the school district have nevertheless been slow to change, as soon revealed by the Preschooler and later cases.

2003/2004: The Preschooler cases, I & II

(These two lawsuits — both over CCSD treatment of pre-school boys — are also known, respectively, as John Doe, et al, v. State of Nevada, and Jane Roe, et al, v. The State of Nevada, et al)

Filed on 12/01/2003 and 03/23/2004, the cases terminated on 11/17/2008 and 09/29/2008, respectively. It is the latter case that is the subject of this story.

The complaint

In March 2004, the parents of a non-verbal autistic pre-school child with tuberous sclerosis who’d attended Betsy Rhodes Elementary School the previous school year sued State of Nevada and Clark County School District officials, in both their official and individual capacities.

They were charged with abdicating their legal and moral responsibilities as administrators while abusive wrongs — multiple beatings — were repeatedly committed against the small, four-year boy.

In the subsequent legal complaint “Bobby,” the name used in this series, would be designated “Preschooler,” a name used by courts frequently in lawsuits against both the state and the district.

Throughout his very first school year (2002-2003), and without the knowledge of his parents, the four-year-old was being subjected by CCSD employees in the “Kids Intensive Delivery of Services,” or KIDS, program at Betsy Rhodes ES to what courts in both Nevada and California would soon recognize as appalling physical and mental abuse.

In September 2002, virtually his first month in the pre-K program, a school aide grabbed him “by the right arm in a twisting fashion with sufficient force to cause bodily injury and threw him two and a half (2 ½) feet,” multiple eyewitnesses would later report.

Two parents of another nonverbal child were present during the episode and judged the classroom a “hostile and violent environment.” They informed the school principal of what they’d witnessed and immediately removed their own child from the Betsy Rhodes “KIDS” program.

It would be the next year before Bobby’s parents finally, inadvertently, learned of that aide’s treatment of their son in September 2002 — which no one from CCSD had ever reported to them.

And being unable to communicate verbally, the toddler himself had not been able to inform his parents of how the Betsy Rhodes personnel were abusing him. By Thanksgiving, however, he had begun — as nonverbal children frequently do — acting out the traumas from school.

Nevada ‘aversive interventions’ law

What had been going on within Bobby’s CCSD classroom had been entirely illegal.

Three years before, in 1999, following the Eason and Witte publicity, Nevada legislators had passed into law significant limitations on the physical force that public school employees could apply against children with disabilities.

Multiple new reporting requirements had also been part of that law. After any negative interventions with disabled kids where physical or verbal and mental abuse were suspected, school and district administrators were under permanent state orders to report the incidents to CCSD’s Board of Trustees not later than 24 hours, or as soon as possible thereafter.

Within the same timeline, the law mandated that any use of non-permissible physical restraints be reported:

  1. within the pupil’s cumulative record,
  2. to his or her individualized education program (IEP) team and
  3. to his or her parent or guardian.

Additionally, for each incident, the law required the district superintendent to submit a corrective plan to the State Department of Education, which would “review the [district’s] plan to ensure that it complies with applicable federal law and the statutes and regulations of this state.”

Nevertheless, as the record would soon show, CCSD personnel then and now regularly treated the new law as eye-wash, regularly ignoring it on multiple fronts.

It was April of 2003, when Betsy Rhodes ES finally notified Preschooler’s family of one of the later “aversive interventions” — a March assault on their son by his teacher. In this instance, an art teacher reported having witnessed the boy’s classroom teacher “assault and batter Plaintiff Preschooler by grabbing both wrists, and violently and forcefully causing him to repeatedly strike himself about the face and head approximately ten (10) to twelve (12) times.”

Around the same time that spring, Bobby’s father happened to speak to the couple who’d removed their own child from the Betsy Rhodes KIDS program the previous September. From them, Bobby’s folks learned about the aide’s grabbing of their four-year-old by the arm and throwing him “two and a half feet,” leaving the witnessing couple aghast.

So now the parents began understanding changes in their child’s behavior, which had previously puzzled them. It had been after just two months of enrollment in the Betsy Rhodes KIDS program, that their son had suddenly begun behaving aggressively — hitting, biting and kicking — behaviors that were new to him.

By June 2003, the parents had consulted with an attorney and requested a due process hearing, under the provisions of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It was the beginning of a long trek — first through administrative appeals and then federal litigation — that would only finally conclude six years later.

And while Preschooler’s parents won significant victories in court, those victories remained, in many ways, hollow and heartbreaking. Bobby was now 10 years old, and CCSD’s unyielding rejection of autism experts’ recommendations over the previous six years had cost the youth his chance of ever joining a life that others his age were already living— and would, thereafter.

The late Dr. Stephen C. Luce — an internationally recognized leader in the field of autism research — had, at the end of 2004, written presciently of the seeds of tragedy in Bobby’s future life that CCSD had sown.

His analysis noted that, right at the beginning, in 2002, Preschooler’s family had brought to the boy’s Individual Education Program (IEP) meeting recommendations from “very knowledgeable” autism professionals for an intensive behavioral intervention.

Luce called CCSD’s refusal to follow the expert recommendations “particularly regrettable since the evidence shows that a critical element contributing to the success of the intervention is for the child to begin treatment as early as possible. Similarly intensive intervention when provided for older children has less robust effects. Less intensive behavioral intervention also results in less dramatic improvements.”

He continued:

It is not uncommon for school districts to resist the recommendations of professionals knowledgeable about the needs of young children with autism. Those recommendations are sometimes viewed as outlandish since they do not resemble standard practices for other children with disabilities. Unfortunately the empirical literature suggests that the kind of recommendations made by [Lovaas consultant] Shawn Regnier are appropriate for young children with autism. Specifically, while 35 hours of in-home instruction is far from what school districts are accustomed to provide, it is precisely what the literature suggests we provide children like the plaintiff.

While it is possible to provide intensive behavioral support in a center-based or classroom setting, it is often found that in-home services with the support of the child’s family and free of the distractions of other children with similar disabilities is precisely what is advised for some children. Accounts of [Preschooler]’s performance in the classroom (poor) and after implementation of the intensive behavioral program (good) are characteristically divergent and represent a demonstration of what the literature has supported for over 10 years. (Emphasis added.)

Part of the Luce legacy is a highly popular book on youth autism — Behavioral Intervention for Young Children with Autism — edited by Drs. Catherine Maurice, Gina Green and himself.

Interestingly, the number one review of the book on Amazon is by a young man, Eli Segal, who received precisely the kind of in-home instruction that the autism consultants had recommended for Preschooler, and which CCSD had denied.

Segal — who has a YouTube video talking about his liberation from his autistic isolation — begins his Amazon review by saying:

Great book showing that kids with autism have potential to grow and learn new skills (as well preventing life-long institutionalization)…

Segal then reveals his personal story:

What’s interesting about all of this is: I was Dr. Bobby Newman’s first client to ever receive a 40-hour per week, ABA program in a home setting and I didn’t speak or respond to my name until I was 4 1/2 years old.

Brain research in recent decades has shed important light on why such home programs for autistic youth can be far superior to the standard public-school classroom approach.

As famed neuroscientist and child psychiatrist Bruce D. Perry explains in the massive best seller, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, it has to do with a remarkable class of nerve cells in the brain.

Known among researchers as “mirror” neurons, they respond in synchrony with the behavior of others nearby, and help human beings form attachments:

For example [says Perry], when a baby smiles, the mirror neurons in his mother’s brain usually respond with a set of patterns that are almost identical to those that occur when Mom herself smiles. This mirroring ordinarily leads the mother to respond with a smile of her own.

However, as the neuroscientist later points out:

[An] important implication of our mirrored biology is that concentrating children with aggressive or impulsive tendencies together is a bad idea, as they will tend to reflect and magnify this, rather than calm each other.

Although research has demonstrated the negative consequences of such groupings, notes Perry, many schools and helping institutions nevertheless “have unfortunately gotten into the habit” of organizing their programs “in ways that concentrate such children.”

The Clark County School District is one such institution.

However, it is not for the benefit of autistic children that CCSD corrals them together into what it terms “self-contained” classrooms. Rather, it seems to be simply for the mental convenience of district administrators, accustomed to the convention of compulsory schooling in segregated classrooms.

However, these concentrated rooms — as court records and media reports regularly make clear — easily become cockpits of chaos.

As the more frustrated youngsters become upset — given the profound challenges they face, CCSD’s often-untrained adult teachers and aides and the district’s chronic evasion of its obligation to provide individualized instruction and services — the emotional “upset” flows through the room, infecting all involved, including staff.

In the tumult, what the children are actually learning reflects the negative behaviors being modeled in front of them — whether classmates’ meltdowns or those of the stressed-out, untrained adult staff.

Soon, the top priority for the adults in the room defaults to maintaining order. If autistic children with severe needs are not disruptive and can be ignored, they will be.

And the one-on-one instruction often needed to assist kids on the autism spectrum to replace maladaptive behaviors with adaptive behaviors becomes an easily-abandoned casualty.

This was exactly what a State of Nevada’s review officer found — and documented in detail — had happened with Preschooler’s educational program.

Today, CCSD continues to concentrate nonverbal autistic children in what it calls “self-contained” classrooms. And today, CCSD teachers and aides continue to report incidents of physical abuse — by other stressed-out CCSD teachers and aides — perpetrated within these classrooms on nonverbal autistic kids.

The parents of those children, too, come to realize that all is not well in those “self-contained” classrooms. They find their children coming home with suspicious bruises and injuries. They see their kids exhibiting new self-harming behaviors and aggression toward others. And they learn of sudden increases in their youngsters’ incontinence and attempts to flee those CCSD classrooms.

Moreover, when it comes to actual learning, they find — as did Bobby’s folks 15 years ago — that their children are now, rather than making progress, actually regressing.

In certain important essentials, the special-education lawsuits filed against CCSD nowadays seem virtually identical with those filed in the first decade of this century — and even, frequently, with some of the lawsuits filed in the last decade of the 20th.

Why is this? A major reason has to be CCSD’s success, over the decades, in keeping the general public in ignorance regarding the district’s dark history — and tolerance — of mistreatment.

Then, when new parents first note something concerning in their young child’s functioning or behavior, they assume that CCSD — which has this large, sprawling special-education establishment — is of course on their side and is the place to go.

Nevada Journal’s next report, therefore, shares an illuminating first-person interview with Preschooler’s mother — sixteen years after the four-year-old Bobby first entered the Clark County School District autism program.

Index to the 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.

News You Can Use from Nevada Journal

Editors: Reprint permission, in whole or in part, is granted under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

Nevada Journal, a member of the Nevada Press Association (NPA) and Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE), is an independent nonprofit reporting effort that adheres to the SPJ standards of professional journalism and specializes in in-depth and investigative journalism.

For the last 20 years, Nevada Journal has been published by the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan public-policy think tank.