‘Catch me if you can,’ Part 3

Steven Miller

Nevada Journal recently spoke with the mother of the boy who had been called “Preschooler” in the highly revealing 2004-2008 lawsuit. In the following report, we’ll call him Bobby — not his actual name.

Directly asked how her son is doing today, she was silent before answering.

“Not very well,” she finally said.

The boy had never been the same, she explained, after those early experiences of adult aggression in the Betsy Rhodes KIDS program.

“In my opinion, it has devastated his life,” she said.

“He didn’t have any of that aggression before that happened. He was barely four years old when all that started. And then — for the first time ever — we saw him hitting himself.”

She gave some background.

“Before the bad teacher, he had a good teacher. And that teacher told me about the ABA [Applied Behavior Analysis] programs that were available through the school district at the time.

“So what I had done, with that teacher’s help, was hire some private tutors to begin the ABA program for my son.”

Then, she said, right before Thanksgiving, “I had one of those private tutors over at the house. And she came running out of the room and said, ‘Bobby’s hitting himself in the head!’ And we had never seen that before.

“So that’s when we first noticed that aggressive behavior. And then he was also throwing a baby doll against the wall, which I then thought, ‘Why’s he doing that?’

“I wasn’t yet thinking that, ‘Gee — that might be happening to him.’

“I was pretty naïve at the time, and didn’t think anything like that could possibly happen at school. So when I saw signs, I didn’t know. I just had no idea of what could be possibly be happening.

“They taught him that. They taught him to hit himself. He would have never done that before.”

Nor would he have learned it at home, she said.

“Basically, I’m a very mellow kind of person. I’m not the kind to yell at my kids, or freak out over little things. Or to hit, or anything like that. So he came from a home that was pretty mild.”

The record of the family’s administrative appeals bears her out. As State Review Officer Joyce O. Eckrem noted in her February 2004 decision, the boy’s very first Individualized Education Program (IEP) — developed on March 21, 2002 — had listed the only “behavioral issues of concern” as “throwing, mouthing, and self- stimulating behaviors.”

Bobby begins changing

However, in “about October, 2002, Parent became concerned over additional behaviors that were beginning to surface, including hitting, kicking and pinching.”

That was after he had been in the Clark County School District program less than two months.

“He just wasn’t in an aggressive, yelling, violent environment, at all [at home]. He was my only child, and so when I saw bruises on his body, I thought, ‘Well, gee, maybe boys get bruises playing at school.’ You know, they’re playing on the playground, I don’t know. But anyway, I was naïve.”

What she did not know at the time was that her son, like other nonverbal pre-K autistic children, was being routinely physically manhandled, as well as verbally abused, in the pre-K program at Betsy Rhodes ES.

Such district practices had been well documented and publicized in lawsuits in the mid-1990s, leading to new state laws prohibiting “aversive interventions.” Nevertheless, in Bobby’s classroom, the practices were continuing.

The parents of another nonverbal child, when visiting the classroom in September 2002 — only shortly after the school year had begun — witnessed a school aide roughly grab Bobby, twisting his arm painfully and throwing him aside.

Upset, those parents reported what they’d observed to the school principal. They also immediately removed their own child from Betsy Rhodes, describing the classroom as a “hostile and violent environment.”

Neither CCSD nor the principal informed Bobby’s parents of the incident. Instead, months later, it was an incidental remark by one of those parents that first alerted the four-year-old’s father.

Just how much physical abuse their son was subjected to at Betsy Rhodes is something Bobby’s parents will never know. Not only was he nonverbal at the time, but early fear and trauma — as discussed below — seriously disrupt the development of trust necessary for autistic children to learn language and other social skills, leaving permanent damage.

Then, in April 2003, after another physical assault — one of several by Bobby’s classroom teacher — the family was finally notified by the  finally notified by the Betsy Rhodes principal of another “aversive intervention.” It was a March assault on their son that an art teacher had witnessed.

She’d reported seeing the 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,” said the complaint.

Six years later, the family finally made it to the end of the district-state-federal legal gauntlet, beating CCSD’s platoon of taxpayer-funded lawyers in court. After findings in two federal courts — Nevada district and 9th Circuit — went against the Clark County School District, CCSD agreed to a financial settlement.

While the amount paid by the district following that settlement is, by agreement, confidential, Nevada Journal asked, not about its amount, but about its adequacy, in terms of Bobby’s needs.

“Honestly, it was totally inadequate; it was ridiculously low,” she said — adding, however, that there was a more basic problem: the permanent damage that CCSD had done to Bobby during that early, critical, development window.

Because Bobby has something akin to PTSD, she said, “He can’t sit on a couch and talk about his problems and try to get any relief. You know, he can’t communicate that well. He can’t understand, so he basically —”

She stops. And then says, “You know, he was a little, innocent, beautiful, loving boy [who] was in this incredible situation he didn’t understand — that hurt him.”

Sad and scared

Bobby’s mom is haunted by a heartbreaking photo of her young preschooler taken at a school event.

He was in the frame alongside “a turkey that they made out of this picture and cutouts and whatever, I don’t know. And in that picture he was — and I didn’t know what I was looking at, at the time — but he was scared, he was… so sad and scared.

“But I didn’t know. It was really evident after it all came out: why he looked that way.”

It’s something she hasn’t been able to get past, she said, because of all the pain it brings. So now she works to help young adults in situations like Bobby’s.

He is now 20 years old, can speak to some extent, but because of his reflexive aggressiveness, cannot be taken out of the institution where he spends each day.

“I don’t remember what year it was that he began to speak,” Bobby’s mother says. “He can basically repeat anything he hears. He can get the basic needs met usually, but not always.

“Like, sometimes he will say, ‘I want McDonalds,’ but what he really wants is to go driving around in the car.”

But now this mother can no longer drive around in the car with her only child, because by the time he was 15, he’d grown too large for her to control. And if he gets too aggressive, it’s dangerous.

Nowadays, she says — a slight quaver in her voice — “He’s stuck in this institution — [and] I can’t take him places anymore. I did the best I could with what I could do. Some of the money, yes, I used it for some extra tutoring, which was helpful. Not really enough. At least it was there.

“But there’s no way to correct something like that. I mean, even a normal person — typical, a person with normal intellectual cognition or whatever — you know, they get abused as a kid and it affects them their whole life.”

Scientific opinion in 2018 is unanimous about the vital need for the autism disability to be addressed as early in the child’s development as possible. But even before their 2003 lawsuit against CCSD, Bobby’s parents had been making the key point — as later stated in that lawsuit:

It is accepted within the autistic provider community that if the school officials do not act expeditiously with these autistically disabled children, the child’s long term welfare and developmental window of opportunity is significantly and detrimentally compromised.

The district, however, as it has done for decades, had stacked Bobby’s IEP team meeting with management-instructed employees, who obediently rejected independent experts’ recommendations for a more intense home program.

And so, his mother says today, “Here’s my son: Can’t understand it, can’t process it. He must think — you know — he’s a terrible person. I don’t know what he thinks. But it can’t be good. And, yeah, that started the aggression with him. And it never ended. It ebbs and flows, but it’s never ended.”

Bobby’s mother knows that, with Tuberous Sclerosis, aggression is a possibility. It’s not a certainty, however. According to Wikipedia, only about 50 percent of individuals with the condition have learning difficulties, and within that 50 percent, those difficulties cover the spectrum from mild to significant.

“I can’t say,” she adds, “that some form of aggression may have developed or not developed with him. But I know that it is so much worse than it could have been — had he not been subjected to that basic abuse at such a young age.

“I mean, it devastated him.”

The actual curriculum

A major reason why the beatings administered to Bobby and his preschool classmates by CCSD employees had long-term destructive impacts is because, by their very nature, they were powerful learning experiences for the toddlers.

Indeed, they could not help but be, occurring as they did during a critical period of development for the preschool children. Nervous systems take near-permanent form in response to their experiences in the first five years.

Pioneering work in neuroendocrinology in the last quarter century has established the critical impact on brain development of big stressors during that period.

Merely brief states of intense stress can permanently alter both the biology and the functioning of the neural networks in the brain that nature has designed to cope with stress and threat.

Being basic for survival, these systems directly connect to all other areas of the brain, which, when threats appear, they can override. Being foundational, they thus can also — if poorly regulated or abnormal — cause dysfunction throughout the rest of the brain.

In the case of autistic children, the most recent research indicates their brains, at the most basic levels, are subjected to powerful uninterrupted sensory stressors that lead to autism’s characteristic behavior patterns.

Even ordinary classroom sounds, notes widely respected trauma authority and child-psychiatrist Bruce Perry, can be overwhelming for these youngsters.

In light of that reality, CCSD’s longstanding practice of gathering such students into “self-contained” classrooms is itself controversial among experts.

Moreover, the district continues to often entrust these vulnerable students into the care of untrained, inadequately screened and even, at times, somewhat disturbed individuals.

Regularly, over the last three decades, federal lawsuits have revealed systematic indifference within district offices — whether in the central administrative complex or within principals’ offices — to the abuse of children within these classrooms.

In 2018 these revelations continue.

The plaintiffs of the Hurd et al v. Clark County School District et al lawsuit — filed in 2016 but still being litigated — recently compelled the district to officially admit it fails to ensure that adult assaults on autistic students are reported and investigated.

Effectively, therefore, district practices facilitate the successful cover-up of many such incidents. When reports to police and parents do occur, it seems to usually be the consciences of non-administrator witnesses that parents have to thank.

Nevertheless, a perceptible level of psychopathology does appear to permeate CCSD when it comes to the treatment of autistic children.

It is noteworthy that the special-ed teacher of HH, the minor plaintiff in the Tims et al v. Clark County School District et al lawsuit, filed January 5, felt able to maul, taunt and humiliate the boy “in front of numerous teachers, students, and CCSD personnel,” as well as “CCSD’s video surveillance cameras” in the school cafeteria of Kirk Adams Elementary school.

According to the plaintiffs’ amended complaint, the video reveals that:

… defendant KASEY GLASS aggressively and intentionally grabbed, pulled and pushed HH, repeatedly pushed HH’s head down with her foot and kicked HH in the head, deprived him of food and liquid by removing it at mealtime before he was able to consume it by throwing it away, restrained and pinned HH into his chair by pushing a table up against his seated body, and intentionally triggered his behaviors by taunting and humiliating him when he indicated through sounds and hand gestures that he wanted his food. GLASS also grabbed HH’s hands and bent them, causing him to drop onto the floor and she intentionally kicked HH’s hands.

After interviewing witnesses and viewing the video footage, CCSD Police Officer Jonathan Fuentes wrote that Glass “subjected HH to actions that a reasonable person would consider degrading, terrorizing and/or emotionally traumatic while creating an environment without proper care necessary for the wellbeing of a child.”

Finally, Fuentes concluded “probable cause exists to charge GLASS with battery” under NRS 200.481(M) and child neglect under “NRS 200.508 for maltreatment.” The report confirms that “an affidavit for warrant was issued for GLASS for the above charges.”

Nevertheless, Glass was simply allowed to resign her CCSD position.

Today, she is listed as an autism teacher for the Nye County School District’s Floyd Elementary School, and retains a State of Nevada license to teach autistic children.

So what really happens — or doesn’t happen — when abuse of special-education children is observed or reported to school and district administrators?

Nevada Journal will explore that question more in Part 4.

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.

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