Investigative Summary:

A special team within the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services has ruled out or not confirmed physical abuse allegations in more than 1,400 cases involving school employees. Records KXAN obtained show, in some cases, where DFPS investigators determined “physical abuse” didn’t occur, other agencies found the behavior — sometimes depicted in video surveillance — unlawful and even worthy of termination.

ROUND ROCK, Texas (KXAN) — Inside the GOALS Learning Center, surveillance cameras recorded as two teachers walked a 14-year-old boy down the hallway. 

The Round Rock school is designed for special education students with a primary disability of Emotional Disturbance, according to the district’s website.

The employees were on either side of the student. They each had a hand threaded through his arm, pushing him forward while he planted his feet to resist their momentum. 

They were going to the school’s cool-down room: a doorless room on the Round Rock campus. State records showed the teachers said they were taking him there because he was arguing and refusing to take a break in class.

			Video showing Round Rock ISD employee throw a student into a cool-down room in April 2022. (Round Rock ISD Photo)

Video showing Round Rock ISD employee throw a student into a cool-down room in April 2022. (Round Rock ISD Photo)

Once in the room, the video showed the boy leaning against the wall with his arms crossed for several minutes. The educators who brought him there stood just outside the doorway. 

But things shifted quickly.  

When the two teachers walked away, the student followed — and a school administrator, who came moments earlier to relieve the teachers, grabbed him around the neck, according to state records, and threw him back into the room where he fell to the floor. 

In the video, the student stood up with fists raised, yelling “You threw me into the wall.”

Two employees, including the administrator who just threw him, are seen grabbing the student by the arms and holding him on the ground for nearly 5 minutes. It’s unclear if the student was lying face up or face down because part of the hold happens off-screen.

At one point, the boy can be heard screaming “I hate it here.”

Later reports from the Texas Education Agency said the video shows the student was subjected to a technique against state law when he was thrown into a room and held on the ground. 

Surveillance video from inside GOALS Learning Center shows the student leaning against the wall with his arms crossed for more than a minute before walking out and being thrown back into the cool-down room. (Round Rock ISD Video)

But, even with the video, nearly two months later in June, investigators with the Child Protective Investigations Division, or CPI, sent a letter to the boy’s mother saying it was not abuse.

“I called the investigator. The investigator told me to take it up with a supervisor,” the boy’s mother, Tatiana Alfano, said. “I pleaded like I would — like an appeal. This isn’t right.”

In October 2022, KXAN obtained the video through the student’s family attorneys and published it in a report. The video garnered thousands of views and months later in November, Alfano got a letter in the mail from the Department of Family and Protective Services — which oversees CPI. 

“I got a whole new letter. Same case number. Same incident date. This time instead of ‘ruled out’ it says ‘reason to believe,’” Alfano said.

			Tatiana Alfano sits in her living room. (KXAN Photo/Richie Bowes)

Tatiana Alfano sits in her living room. (KXAN Photo/Richie Bowes)

“I don’t think anything changed. I think they got a lot of pressure from the media. A lot of people questioning ‘Hey this isn’t right,” she continued.

DFPS’ new ruling indicated investigators now believed, based on evidence, that abuse occurred. Investigators did not disclose to Alfano or KXAN why the ruling changed. 

The employee, who was seen on video throwing the student and investigated for allegations of physical abuse, did not return our emails and messages asking for comment. He remains under investigation by the TEA’s Education Investigations Division.

KXAN is not naming the employee because he is not charged with a crime.

The other two employees seen in the video are not under investigation by the State Board of Education Certification, according to TEA records.

Round Rock Independent School District told KXAN in October the educator was still employed and working on administrative projects, but not assigned to the GOALS Learning Center. District officials told us in April it would not disclose whether the employee still worked for the district because it was a confidential personnel matter.

After hearing from frustrated parents of students with disabilities, Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, filed a bill this session that would expand the definition of abuse to include restraints in schools that do not comply with state and federal laws.

His concern was for students who are not able to talk and describe abuse to adults.

We showed Dutton the video of Alfano’s son and told him about CPI changing the ruling.

			Texas State Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) watches the video of the incident involving Tatiana Alfano's son (KXAN Photo/Kelly Wiley)

Texas State Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, watches the video of the incident involving Tatiana Alfano’s son (KXAN Photo/Kelly Wiley)

“I mean, if you throw any child down like that, that’s abuse,” Dutton said. “I don’t know how anyone could conclude that wasn’t abuse.”

“I am not so sure about this changing conclusion using the same set of facts and video to come up with a different conclusion,” Dutton continued. “Come on — that creates a lack of confidence in CPS for doing anything.”

Up until 2017, Child Protective Services, or CPS, handled both family and school investigations into alleged abuse and neglect. DFPS now has two separate divisions: CPS for family investigations and CPI for special investigations, including cases of alleged abuse in schools.

‘He had bruises on him’

In 2021 in San Augustine, a small city in East Texas, records show the local school district was notified by a parent about an allegation an aide physically mistreated an elementary school student with special needs.

The district said in a statement it terminated the aide the morning after reviewing the footage. The superintendent said it confirmed the misconduct.

According to the district, during the termination meeting, the aide alleged misconduct by another employee. The district fired the second employee the next day.

The first aide to be terminated did not respond to our requests for comment. The second aide told KXAN she did not hit the child.

TEA records show both aides voluntarily surrendered their educator certificates following a state investigation into the video.

But records show, for both employees accused, CPI investigators again ruled out abuse.

“How are they going to rule it out and he had bruises on him?” the boy’s mother, Arizona Price, said. “They even [saw] the video.”

			Arizona Price stands outside her home in East Texas. (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

Arizona Price stands outside her home in East Texas. (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

Price has been allowed by the school district to view the video but so far, the district has asked the attorney general’s office if it can decline her request to have a copy of the footage.

In the letter to the attorney general, the district said it is requesting to withhold the footage from Price because it anticipates litigation over the matter.

KXAN has not viewed the video showing this incident.

No criminal charges have been filed in the case and the TEA closed the investigation when the aides surrendered their certificates.

“The system is bad. It’s just … I’ve never been through that before. So, I am just lost for words,” Price said.

The standard of proof

Between 2021 and 2022, the Child Protective Investigations division investigated more than 1,500 allegations employees physically abused students in Texas schools.

Records show CPI did not confirm physical abuse occurred in 92% of those cases.

According to the department’s data, in a portion of the cases, CPI investigators said they did not confirm abuse because they weren’t able to collect enough evidence to decide one way or the other. In those cases, the disposition letter to the parents says “unable to determine.”

But in most cases where DFPS did not confirm physical abuse, CPI investigators indicated they collected enough evidence to determine abuse did not occur. In those cases, they told parents in a letter similar to the one Price and Alfano received, physical abuse was “ruled out.”

Overwhelmingly, CPI Investigators rule out physical abuse in school investigations. Unconfirmed cases include those in which investigators administravely closed a case, did not have enough evidence to make a determination and cases in which they said they had enough evidence to rule out abuse completely. Confirmed means investigators determined there was reason to believe abuse occurred.

Investigations into alleged physical abuse against a child by school employees are handled by the special investigation unit within DPFS. All school employees are mandated to report suspected abuse to DFPS or law enforcement. DFPS is required to respond within 24 to 72 hours to reports of abuse.

At the same time, TEA can conduct its own investigation into educator misconduct or non-compliance on the part of a particular school district. TEA will consider the determinations of DFPS school investigations, but the agency can also investigate and consider the underlying facts as it pertains to violations of the Texas Administrative Code.

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Standard of Proof for DFPS

Physical abuse occurs when one or more of the following is true:

  • A child suffers a physical injury that results in substantial harm to the child, or there is a genuine threat of substantial harm from physical injury to the child. Both include an injury that does not logically match the history or explanation given. Both exclude an accident or reasonable discipline by a parent, guardian or managing or possessory conservator that does not expose the child to a substantial risk of harm.
  • A person or persons fail to make a reasonable effort to prevent an action by another person that results in physical injury causing substantial harm to a child.
  • A person or persons currently use a controlled substance, as defined by Chapter 481, Health and Safety, in a manner or to the extent that the use results in physical injury to a child.
  • A person or persons cause, expressly permit, or encourage a child to use a controlled substance, as defined by Chapter 481, Health and Safety,

DFPS Commissioner Stephanie Muth and the acting Special Investigations Regional Director Greg Eakens declined KXAN’s requests for an interview. The agency said it can’t comment on specific cases due to confidentiality laws.

But, in a statement, DFPS officials said “Investigations are difficult and complex work in any setting. School investigations [are] equally as challenging than any other probe into abuse or neglect of a child.”

The standard of proof for reaching a disposition, according to DFPS, is the same for school settings as it is for an investigation of a family.

The results of investigations into alleged abuse at schools can have an impact on whether an educator keeps their license — and on potential criminal cases. The special investigation program director — and in extenuating circumstances, the special investigations regional director — approves the results.

Parents are not allowed to appeal the decision. They can only file a complaint with the Office of Consumer Affairs.

DFPS officials pointed to a component of the definition of physical abuse in Texas law requiring “genuine threat of substantial harm” — which is defined as “declaring or exhibiting the intent or determination to inflict real and significant physical injury or damage to a child.”

DFPS officials said restraints, even when they don’t comply with state and federal law, are only considered abuse when they otherwise meet the statutory definition of child abuse.

This would change if Rep. Dutton’s bill passed.

“The problem is on the legislative side — no matter what we call it, no matter how we define it, [CPI] has still got to be the ones to make it happen,” Dutton said.

“What is going to happen [is] the parents, you know, are going to take matters into their own hands or their children will,” Dutton continued. “That’s just the sort of chaos we hope to prevent.”

‘I can’t be the only one’

In the case of Tatiana Alfano’s son, a separate TEA investigation by the Division of Special Education Dispute Resolution, Complaints and Intensive Monitoring, completed in March, concluded her son was “inappropriately restrained,” that aversive techniques were used, and that some of the restraint was not properly reported.

According to DFPS policy, the latest ruling by CPI would also have to be sent to the TEA along with a redacted version of the case file.

But Alfano said she is concerned about other cases like hers.

“It makes me feel better in this one case, but it makes me question the system a whole lot more,” Alfano said. “I know that I can’t be the only one.”

Digital Data Reporter Christopher Adams, Photojournalist Richie Bowes, Graphic Artist Wendy Gonzalez, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Photojournalist Chris Nelson, Graphic Artist Christina Staggs and Digital Director Kate Winkle contributed to this report.